Fri, Oct 26, 2007 - Page 13 News List


'The Firmiana Rain' shows that not only are Asians taking an increasingly prominent role in the classical music scene, they are also placing their own stamp on the genre

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Staff Reporter

The love story between Lady Yang and the Xuanzong emperor is one of the classics of Chinese literature.


The story is old - the action takes place in the Tang Dynasty over 1,000 years ago and was first immortalized on stage by the poet Bai Pu (白樸, 1226-1306) during the Yuan Dynasty - but the form it will take in Chen May-tchi's (陳玫琪) opera The Firmiana Rain (梧桐雨), which will have its world premiere at the National Theater Taipei on Thursday, is avant-garde.

With a score that incorporates ancient Chinese music, a Western orchestra, a libretto in Mandarin, French and German, a Japanese director, a Taiwanese gezai opera (歌仔戲) performer and more, this Taiwan-Japan coproduction is billed as a "modern romantic opera."

The Firmiana Rain follows the grand romance between the Emperor Tang Xuanzong (唐玄宗) and the imperial concubine Lady Yang (楊貴妃), the resulting political upheaval and rebellion led by the general An Lu-shan (安祿山), and the death of Yang by her own hand (but at the ruler's insistence), as the only solution to the political crisis. The title refers to the sound of water dropping on the large leaves of the firmiana tree, which forms the backdrop to the emperor's thoughts as he reflects on the sacrifice he made for political expediency. Although it was Yang's nepotism and her family's corruption that was largely responsible for the crisis in the first place, this great betrayal has enshrined her as one of the great tragic heroines of Chinese literature.

While the basic story has been rendered by many of China's great poets, composer Chen's version has raised a few eyebrows.

Musically, the work is a continuation of Chen's interest in unconventional combinations. The score incorporates Chinese instruments such as the pipa (琵琶), a kind of Chinese lute, and the bamboo flute and references the music that would have been played at the court of the emperor. Chen drew inspiration from her studies of ancient music from the royal courts of China, Japan and Korea. A concert extract in 2002 for Showcasing American Composers won critical acclaim, and was responsible for the work being picked up for full production in Asia.

With this staged production, Chen's ambitions to transverse artistic divides are fully revealed. While this is still an opera in the Western tradition, The Firmiana Rain pushes many boundaries. Its libretto is primarily in Mandarin, but the formal scenes at the court are sung in French and the anger of the barbarian general An Lu-shan, when brought in chains before the emperor, is sung in German. "The Tang court was already a great melting pot," Chen said. "It was quite natural for members of the court to absorb influences from Asia Minor and India. China was already quite an international society. We have simply translated that into more modern terms."

With the involvement of Tang Mei-yun (唐美雲), one of Taiwan's best-known gezai opera singers and Liu Fu-hsueh (劉復學) of the National Gouguang Opera Company (國立國光劇團), the melting pot concept has been carried to an extreme in this current production.

The inclusion of these performers means that The Firmiana Rain is not only innovative in terms of Western opera, it also requires a high level of cooperation and tolerance for the demands of vastly different performance traditions.

In an interview with the Taipei Times, Tang said she had adjusted her regular performance style, most notably having to work to a predefined score. "There is much more physical movement in our style of performance," she said. "In Western opera, they [performers] focus more exclusively on the singing."

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