Beijing Opera is a tactful art. "I'm sorry to be so rude," sings the heroine as she draws her sword, ready to fight the guardian spirits of the magic mountain. The battle is a mix of boldness and delicacy, its jumps and somersaults softly phrased. Courtesy is a vital part.
The National Beijing Opera Company of China is touring Britain with six lavish productions. The works are a blend of song and mime drama. Men and women sing in high voices, hands fluttering in gestures. There are some essentially acrobatic roles, but even leading singers are physically strong and supple. The costumes are sumptuous.
Legend of the White Snake is a tale of love and suspicion. Bai Suzhen, a white snake spirit, takes human form and falls in love with a young man. Their marriage is broken up by a suspicious monk. In the last scenes, the hero and heroine are repeatedly reunited, as if happy and tragic endings were being tried out.
It's all highly stylised. To Western ears, the singing is unmelodic, a kind of high-pitched recitative. As they sing, performers arrange themselves in careful poses. Pacing is leisurely, but every motion - a hand tilt, the rearrangement of a sleeve - registers on a huge scale.
At first, I found the style arch. Bai Suzhen's meetings with her lover have a knowing, deliberate charm. Later scenes of grief and reconciliation are no less artful, but they become moving.
When Bai Suzhen stands in sorrow, she winds her silk sleeves about her hands and raises one arm. Her whole body is taut with anger and regret. The role is played by Li Shengsu. This is a performance of soft grace and real authority.
There's comedy in these later scenes, too. Reproaching her husband, the agitated Bai Suzhen takes twice as long, twice as many turns of the wrist, to shake back her sleeves for a gesture. As the couple are reconciled, they mime sobs in precise unison. Zhang Wei, playing the husband, has gentle comic timing.
Huang Hua, as the heroine's sister, acts and moves with vivid attack. She fights many of Bai Suzhen's battles, beating off assaults with poles, or leading her own army of warriors.
The acrobatic set-pieces are the most accessible element. The guardians of the mountain are deer and crane spirits. The crane jumps and jumps, arms beating slowly. The deer springs, quick and eager.
The grand battles are ravishing. The monk and Bai Suzhen bring the forces of heaven and water to their fight over her husband. The heavenly warriors attack with somersaults, diving across the stage in flips and twists. The water warriors wear silks in blue and silver fish-scale patterns, with carp headdresses. They carry blue silk banners, rippling them into waves, or sweeping them with martial flourishes.
National Beijing Opera tours to the Edinburgh Festival Theatre and Salisbury International Arts Festival (www.thebeijingopera.com)Reuse content