Chinese Opera, Abridged, at Metropolitan Museum

Last Friday, audiences at the Metropolitan Museum enjoyed an abridged version of a well-known piece of Kunqu, the oldest form of Chinese opera: ‘The Peony Pavilion’. From James R. Oestreich’s review at the New York Times, with the 70-minute performance embedded below:

Part of the new concert series Met Museum Presents, which stresses ties to exhibitions, this “Peony,” first presented near Shanghai in 2010, was an adjunct to “Chinese Gardens: Pavilions, Studios, Retreats” (on view through Jan. 6), organized by the curator Maxwell K. Hearn. The five performances took place in the intimate Astor Court, a re-creation of a Chinese garden, and because the seating was limited to some 50 viewers, the first performance, on Friday evening, was relayed in high-definition video to the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium.

[…] “The Peony Pavilion” was completed by Tang Xianzu in 1598, and comparisons are often drawn between Tang and his close contemporary Shakespeare, and between “Peony” and “Romeo and Juliet.” All well and good, but in terms of sheer length and epic scope, “Peony” is closer to Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. It places a modest but evocative romantic tale against a broad tapestry of life — social, courtly and military — in the vibrant Song dynasty (960-1276).

The 70-minute distillation produced by Mr. Zhang and Mr. Tan amounts to little more than a tasting portion of the work, though a delectable one. In 4 scenes (as against the original 55), it merely sketches the romantic tale, shorn of subplots and the countless colorful and even zany characters and incidents that teem from Tang’s imagination.

The susceptible Du encounters and falls for a young scholar, Liu, in a dream. Awakened and bereft, she pines to her death, leaving behind a self-portrait. The real-life Liu happens on the portrait and manages to have Du restored to life (don’t ask) and to his affections. End of story.

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For more on the Kunqu art form , see ‘Shanghai Opera Dream: Save China’s Oldest Opera‘, at CDT.


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