The Peony Pavilion
At the Lobero Theatre, Sunday, October 8.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Schwyzer
Last Sunday’s culminating performance of The Peony Pavilion marked not only the end of the Chinese Kunqu opera’s Santa Barbara run, but the finale to a 28-month world tour. When general producer, UCSB professor emeritus, and internationally renowned author Kenneth Pai joined the curtain call to a thunderous standing ovation, he proclaimed himself “the happiest man in the world.” If you were there, you were lucky enough to witness the fulfillment of Pai’s lifelong dream to revive the ancient Chinese art form and bring it to Western audiences. The overwhelming success of the production has had historic import, both for its presentation of a near-forgotten jewel of Chinese cultural heritage and for the international popularity it has brought to a 400-year-old work.
On the surface, Kunqu opera doesn’t sound particularly accessible to modern Western audiences. Its highly stylized gestures and movements and falsetto vocals, not to mention the notorious length of the performances, suggest an acquired taste that most Westerners haven’t had the opportunity to cultivate. Yet not only was Peony Pavilion visually stunning, aurally exquisite, and compelling for its sheer exoticism; it was also utterly emotionally engaging.
In the concluding three-hour episode of Pai’s nine-hour version of the tale, two young lovers who have met only in their dreams are finally united after Liu Mengmei resurrects Du Liniang from death. They elope, then face a series of challenges before their marriage is formally accepted. Text, music, movement, and visual art amplified one another to elevate the story’s meaning beyond the literal and into the realm of the metaphoric. The young performers were supremely expressive — each movement of the head and flick of the wrist evoked a new emotional landscape.
The beauty of this production was in its extraordinary blend of stylized exaggeration and delicate subtlety. The lovers’ expressions of desire for one another were at once formal and poignant; the tension between Liu Mengmei and Du Bao, Liniang’s father, both comic and unsettling. Yet it was impossible to “read” Peony Pavilion as one might read a realist play. Instead, from the sumptuous painted silk backdrops to the thin, reedy strains of the transverse flute, the experience of Peony Pavilion demanded complete surrender to its magic. So lavish was this production, so finely executed, that to be on its receiving end was humbling.
“Your unwavering love wrought my resurrection,” sang Du Liniang to Liu Mengmei at their joyous reunion. It would have been an equally fitting song of gratitude from the opera itself to the man whose steadfast dedication brought this ancient love story back from the dead.