Thursday, January 28, 2016

Peking Opera/Dalian Troupe: The Forest on Fire/The Princess Hundred Flowers

This 1994 release from the French label, Musique du Monde, presents two pieces of Peking Opera, a form of music and theater that began in the late 18th-century, including "The Forest on Fire," a 28 1/2 minute work, and "The Princess Hundred Flowers," which spans some 46 minutes.  This excellent performance was recorded at Dalian Opera in Liaoning province in March by Francois Picard, who also provided the informative liner notes.

As with any type of performance that marries music with visual theatrics, including acrobatics as well as speech, singing and instrumental work, recordings can only provide some approximation of the experience, but the music is remarkable and striking.

Percussion is a major element, unlike in much of European opera, with drums, clappers (guban), various-sized gongs, and cymbals employed to vivid effect.  Strings include the jinghu, a Peking fiddle, the erhu, another fiddle, and a few types of lute-like instruments.  Wind instruments include mouth organs (sheng), the dizi, a flute, and the suona, a flared shawm, a distinctively high-pitched dual reed horn.

The vocalizing is. of course, just one element of the amazing work done by elaborately dressed and masked characters, being Zhang Dingbian in "The Forest on Fire" and the title character of Princess Hundred Flowers.  Volume, tonal control, and the emphasis on dramatic phrasing are key to the purely musical aspects of the performance, because the acting, including facial expressiveness, very precise gesturing and body movement are key.

In fact, to some ears, much of this music, both instrumental playing and singing, can be jarringly  shrill, tonally and harmonically foreign, and melodically off-putting.  It does take some time and effort to reorienting the Western ear to the sounds of this amazing music, just as it does for other forms of "world music," whether this be the Indian raga, African tribal music, gamelan, sufi music, Turkish mevlana, and many others.

Repeated listenings bring out the complexity, dynamic range, expression and variety of sounds that make Peking Opera a truly enriching experience and the virtuosity of the musicians and performers is stunning.

Performances of this art form are still offered, though there have been changes in recent years after outright bans during the cultural revolutions under Mao Tse Tung, but opportunities in America to see authentic operas are rare.  Perhaps some day, this blogger will get the chance to attend a performance and move from the detached musical appreciation to the immersion of a fuller experience.

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