A first encounter with Peking Opera -- and it is likely that most of the audience was experiencing just that when the China National Peking Opera Company presented "Female Generals of the Yang Family" Thursday night at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater -- can be somewhat unsettling.
The stories are crushingly static, closer to medieval mystery plays than to modern drama. There is little or no character development, beyond glorification of the heroes and deeper and deeper revilement for the villains. The instrumental music, played by a small ensemble, is heavily reliant upon percussion, combined with bowed stringed instruments, plucked lutes and (more sparingly) a variety of wind instruments. To Western ears, the vocal music generally comes across as songful chatter; whenever a hero has sung something with unusual volume or intensity, the audience is expected to clap, in much the same pro forma way a long sax solo would be applauded in a nightclub.
In a word, Peking Opera is stylized, and adjustment to the style may take some time. As yet another newcomer to the genre (the company last visited Washington in 1980), I found myself most taken by the innate sense of ritual in the evening, by the elaborately beautiful costumes, by the bright colors of the stage decor and by the long demonstration of martial arts that served as the finale to Act 2.
"Female Generals of the Yang Family" is the story of a 100-year-old matriarch who is understandably grieved when her son is killed in an invasion. Instead of accepting the terms of surrender proposed by her court, however, she leads her daughter-in-law and several other female generals into battle. The outcome is never in doubt: the character of the warrior woman (be she an Amazon, a Valkyrie, Boadicea or one of "Charlie's Angels") is a distinct and permanent part of world consciousness, found in virtually every culture and every era.
Bi Yang, an actress who makes a specialty of portraying elderly women, played the central role of She Taijun; she sang with fierce, almost prayerful, intensity and delivered the closest thing "Female Generals" had to a traditional aria, toward the beginning of Act 2. Not surprisingly, most of the kung fu fireworks were left to women playing younger characters, notably Deng Min as Mu Guiying. The combat was choreographed vividly, although the men generally seemed to bounce off the women as though they had been repelled by invisible force fields rather than by their opponents' fighting prowess.
The Eisenhower Theater, while much smaller than the Kennedy Center Concert Hall or Opera House, is still a large space, so it was probably necessary to employ some amplification. Still, I wonder whether the results needed to be so tinny, trebly and loud, as though the opera were being blasted from an old stereo system in a boomer's basement. At times, the percussion sounded like nothing so much as a gigantic Slinky toy, amplified a thousand times, making an endless descent down a gigantic staircase.
"Female Generals of the Yang Family" was presented as part of the Kennedy Center Festival of China, and will be repeated tonight at 8. The show is officially sold out, but those in search of something unusual may want to venture out in search of a ticket. If worse comes to worst, and you can't get in, there's Berg and Berlioz over at the National Symphony, a few hundred feet to the south.