The Peony Pavilion

At the Lobero Theatre, Sunday, October 8.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Schwyzer

Last Sunday’s culminating performance of The Peony
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

“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.


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