The Peony Pavilion is to China what Romeo and Juliet is to the rest of the world. In its original form, this tale of forbidden love, heartbreak and death is staged in Kunqu, one of the oldest and most refined styles of Chinese theatre. That, perhaps, also explains why this extravagant tale has a run-time of 20 hours, with 55 scenes!
For their maiden appearance in India (in Mumbai on December 9, and then in Delhi on December 12), however, this famed opera condensed it all to 90 minutes, with a cast of around 15 artists. Needless to say, for a country that feasts on all things love, it was a breathtaking performance that celebrated love.
Written by Tang Xianzu in 1598 in the Ming Dynasty, the opera stresses on "desire and love that transcend time and space, life and death". The story revolves around the beautiful Du Liniang, who falls asleep one day while taking a stroll in the garden and dreams of Liu Mengmei. She falls in love with him, but dies young because her love is not requited.
Years later, Liu comes across a portrait of Du while walking through the same garden and falls in love with her. This time, her ghost appears in front of him and tells him that they can lead a happily married life only if he dug up her grave and opened her coffin. She tells him that they are destined to be together and that the heavens will ensure she is brought back to life.
Talking of the changes the opera made to suit Indian theatre, Cao Ying, the president of the Beijing-based Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre said: "The original was like a soap opera with a history, social background to it with many peripheral characters. It had to be condensed to match the speed and rhythm of our time. The most important scenes, however, have been retained."
Added Zhang Yuanyuan, who plays the female lead Du Liniang: "The abridged version doesn't compromise on the essence of the play. The plot revolves only around the two lovers".
The introductory song that translated to "lovers separated by time and reunited" established the spirit of the play even before it began. While it was staged entirely in Chinese, there was a screen right at the top that displayed the English subtitles. Even in the absence of the subtitles, the performance would've been enthralling enough with the actors' graceful moves to the live band supporting them on stage. The actors looked elegant and much at ease in their elaborate costumes and make-up. Except for a table and chair that were occasionally kept on the stage, the actors didn't have any props to work with throughout the play.Watch the hero profess his love to his lady in Chinese opera style:
It was a synthesis of drama, opera, ballet, poetry and music recital, all elements central to Kunqu, which was recognised by the UNESCO as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001.
A closer look at the performance also revealed much in common between traditional Indian art forms and Kunqu. For instance, in both Bharatnatyam and Kunqu, every movement conveys a story, said Swati Bhise, New York-based Bharatanatyam dancer and the Bravia Sadir theatre festival's artistic director. Bhise was instrumental in bringing the opera to India.
"The movements with the water sleeves in Kunqu opera, be it swishing or unfurling them, bear a much deeper meaning, just like in many traditional Indian dance forms," she added.
Each time Lui and Du's water sleeves touched, their faces bore a coy expression suggesting intimacy and romance. The embrace in traditional theatre is abstract, Zhang said adding that gestures only insinuate romance. However, she laughed heartily on learning that the Indian audience was rather prudish when it came to expressing love.