Few groups have done more in the revival of ancient arts and their presentation on the modern stage as fully-realized contemporary works of art as Taiwan's Han Tang Yuefu (漢唐樂府). The world premiere of the much-anticipated The Tale of the Lo River Goddess (洛神賦) this weekend shows that the group, under artistic director Chen Mei-O (陳美娥), is still very much on track and pushing the limits of the aesthetic that it has been developing since Yangexing (豔歌行) back in 1996.
Once again, the audience is presented with magnificent sets, sumptuous costumes, and a leisurely pace of present-ation that allows a full appreciation of the subtleties of the sparse, stripped-down liyuan (otherwise know as Pear Garden) style of operatic performance, of which the group has made itself a master. For those familiar with the work of Han Tang Yuefu, all the grace, elegance and mystery are present, and on this occasion the work benefits from the stronger narrative base provided by Cao Zhi's (曹植) Ode to the Goddess of the Lo River, from which this work takes its title and inspiration.
Cao Zhi is one of the great tragic figures of Chinese history, the brilliant youngest son of Cao Cao (
This background of intense fraternal rivalry provides the poignancy of the Ode to the Goddess of the Lo River, which was an allegorical lament for the death of Chen Hou (
Despite its romantic theme, Lo River proceeds at a dauntingly majestic pace, and will hold the audience's interest through its mesmerizing evocations of mood created from a succession of tableaux vivants. Each scene is like a display window of magnificent costumes draped over artfully assumed poses, accompanied by the drawn out, subtle modulations of the nanguan lyrics.
On the production side, Lo River brings together an international crew that contributed significantly to the wider appeal of the show. Han Tang Yuefu have also been very particular over their choice of costume, and Tim Yip's (葉錦添) gloriously decadent outfits for The Feast of Han Xizai (韓熙載夜宴圖) have been followed in Lo River with the creations of designer William Chang (張叔平), who has worked on such notable features as Chen Kaige's (陳凱歌) Tempress Moon (鳳月), and Wong Kar-wai's (王家衛) Ashes of Time (東邪西毒) and In the Mood for Love (花樣年華), all very lush productions.
While art and design have drawn heavily from a cinematic aesthetic of super-saturated colors and complex textures, with styling that flirts on the edges of stiff oriental formality, conceptually Han Tang has always been more than willing to take its cues from Europe, or at least to actively engage in cultural exchange. This exchange was embodied in the bold, and arguably less than successful, fusion of European and Chinese classical dance traditions of Le Jardin des Delices, produced in cooperation with La Penich Opera of Paris. In Lo River, the European influences are not as intrusive, and serve rather to heighten the sense of the exotic, making it equally effective in appealing to audiences familiar with Chinese performance arts, as to those approaching it for the first time.