On Wednesday 18th May, the National Beijing Opera Company of China presented the Legend of the White Snake at Sadler’s Wells.
The visual spectacle that accompanies Chinese Opera is stunning and, on this occasion, imagery and story line matched each other in beauty and pathos. The legend of two young maidens who were Evil Spirits in a previous life and have to reaffirm their new human status in a conflicting world that shifts continuously between myth and realism is the stuff legends all around the world are made of.
The origins of the piece date to the T’ang Dynasty between the VII and IX centuries. The central story was developed between the following centuries and it seems to have been established by the XIV century. The ancient origins of Chinese Opera are obvious in its form. This is definitely not Opera as we, in the Western World, know it. This is a different art form with its own conventions and elements, as illustrated in many films made during the last decades, Farewell my Concubine being a supreme example.
The actors-singers-dancers are trained to standards of perfection. It is not enough to master the vocal expertise the roles demand –high pitched falsettos-, but the singers have to have a control of their body language and movement that is stylishly stunning. Moreover, in certain scenes reminiscing of the latest Chinese films like House of the Flying Daggers, the acrobatics and precision of martial arts on stage were breathtaking. If only, in The Legend of the White Snake, there was a story that served their purpose.
It took a while to get used to the singing conventions and it was really helpful to have subtitles on both sides of the stage in order to get the full meaning of the story and appreciate the characterisation of the different roles. The musicians sat at one side of the stage and their atonal music provided an atmospheric background throughout the piece.
Special praise should be given to Huang Hua, who played the Green Snake, Xiao Qing. She was marvellous in her acting, singing and in the most stunning scene of the Opera, The Battle at the Temple. This scene was Chinese Opera at its most impressive with its neverending series of acrobatics of unbelievable precision and martial arts fights, perfectly coordinated with the music and action. It is rare to find a story nowadays in which women have such strong roles. Of course, these roles have only been taken by women recently, but still, the story is part of a folklore that has been part of Chinese culture for centuries.
After such spectacle, in the second part, the climax that had preceded it was difficult to match, but the story still unfolded beautifully until the end.
Li Shengsu as Bai Suzhen, the White Snake, was excellent, though she encountered problems in the fight at the Temple with her spear because it kept getting entangled in her clothes. She obviously got anxious at some point, but she recovered in the second half.
Zhang Wei as Xu Xian, the not very loyal husband, was also very good. Though his role did not ask for the acrobatics that some of the others did, he could still perform some jumps with perfection.
Overall, it was a great evening and a unique opportunity to get acquainted with an art form that is so beautifully presented after centuries of change and evolution… and even revolution.