Chinese opera far predates European opera, but the templates for Peking Opera as it’s practiced today were fixed only in the early 19th century. The Mei Lanfang Jingju Troupe, which first appeared here in 1930, performed Wednesday at the Kennedy Center Opera House, with a second performance set for Thursday. It offered a large cast, eye-popping costumes and decor, a full orchestra of traditional Chinese instruments, and remarkable stagecraft.
Opera, of course, is a multimedia genre regardless of the form or nationality. But in Peking Opera, movement is much more important than in the Western version. The troupe’s program for Wednesday’s performance of five “classic plays” listed “actors” rather than singers. Many performers didn’t sing a note, and all of the principals danced, mimed and fought, sometimes more than they sang.
And despite the large cast, the only singing was solo — the principal declaiming the story while performing stylized movements. There were no choral or ensemble numbers. The orchestra somewhat incongruously included cellos and double basses, which laid down simple bass lines, but the bulk of the ensemble played long melodies in unison with the actor/singer. Only rarely was there a wisp of harmony in the texture.
The evening’s tour de force was “Resisting Jin Troops,” a marvelous display of dancing, baton twirling, swordfighting and crowd choreography. At one point, the female protagonist held off five aggressive swordsmen with her baton while managing a costume of Mardi Gras size and complexity. In “Farewell My Concubine,” a melodrama from which the 1993 film was made, the suicide, while not at all graphic, was made poignantly real through the stylized acting. In “Drunken Beauty,” a spurned consort did a tipsy but demure Rockettes chorus-line number with her ladies-in-waiting. And there were some terrific acrobats at the opening of “Pierce the Mussel.”
I was disappointed that everything had to be miked and amped. Was it truly necessary? The sound mix was grating, with yowling vocals and wood block predominating unnaturally. But the troupe’s energy, the beauty of the decor and the enthusiasm of the audience (paying no attention to the no-photography rule) made for a mostly delightful evening.
Battey is a freelance writer.