The Jester (弄臣), a new Beijing opera production by Vivien Ku (辜懷群) and Li Baochun (李寶春) that had its world premiere at Novel Hall (新舞台) on Friday, is proof that a little humor will go a very long way. The success of this production is due not only to a strong story, for which credit goes largely to Victor Hugo (because The Jester is a adaptation of Rigoletto, which lifted its plot from Hugo’s Le Roi S’Amuse), but to the fact that it has not forgotten that Beijing opera was always intended to be a spectacular entertainment.
Entertainment is the key, and The Jester, while never losing sight of its serious subtext and subtle ironies, manages to be hugely enjoyable. Instead of trying laboriously to impress the audience with its artistic boldness, it delights with its virtuosity. This in no way diminishes what it has achieved in responding to the insistent demand for change and innovation within the traditional arts. It is innovation built on virtuosity rather than innovation instead of virtuosity, and the addition of magic tricks and the tune of La Donna e Mobile inserted into the otherwise largely traditional score are delightful little jokes rather than intrusive devices to show off the producers’ avant-garde credentials.
Li, who plays the main role of Rigoletto, also directed and contributed enormously to the writing of the script, and his grounding as a performer shines through, lifting the whole production. During the first act, in his role as the court fool, he performs a number of slight-of-hand magic tricks — changing a scarf into a staff and pulling a songbird in a cage out of his sleeve. The tricks themselves are unexceptional by the standards of modern magic, but the fact that Li is able to perform them while singing a highly entertaining aria and interacting with other characters on stage drew gasps of delight from the audience. The use of Verdi’s well-known music was also introduced lightly and served both as a running joke and marked a moment of terrible revelation for the title character. It is always nice to see resources such as these sparingly used, but when used, exploited to their full.
But quite apart from these musical jokes and stage business, there was the solid foundation of Beijing opera talent, and the fact that the cast was allowed to do what they do best. There were plenty of virtuoso arias by Li and Chao Chun (趙群), who plays Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter, and plenty of traditional comic business by Huang Yu-lin (黃宇琳), who mixes singing, cross-talk and broad comedy superbly for several roles, including Giovanna.
Applause and bravos started only minutes into the first act, a response that was a stark contrast to the ponderous silence and dutiful clapping that marked some recent fusion productions. People walked away at the end having been lifted up by the skill of the performance rather than being weighed down by its burden of innovation.
On the other side of town at the National Experimental Theater, New Idea Theater Festival (新點子劇展) opened with the first of three productions that seek to combine the beauty of traditional opera with the exploration of contemporary issues. The opening production featured the Taiwan Bangzi Company (台灣豫劇團) in coordination with director Fu Hung-cheng (符宏征). There was much that was good about the production, though it must be said that the quality was most evident when the traditional performers where allowed to get on with it. For the rest, Liou Ching-ti’s Hell (劉青提的地獄) simply had too much of everything. Not content to find inspiration from one traditional opera, subplots from two others where brought in. To give it a contemporary edge, scenes of the modern mundane were also brought in. Then there were smoke machines working overtime, tumbling devils from hell in acrobatic and comic sequences, and a television soundtrack competing with a traditional ensemble. Some of the devices where startlingly fresh, while others were rather cliched, but crucially, for all the quality ingredients that went in, the mixture never really bonded. The second production in the series is The Drought Goddess (大神魃) by the Ethan Chen Production House (野墨坊) and runs from Dec. 19 through Dec. 21, followed by Li Ling, the Abandoned Hero (半世英雄 — 李陵) by 1/2Q Theater, which plays from Dec. 25 through Dec. 28. Tickets for all productions are NT$500 and are available through NTCH ticketing or online at www.artsticket.com.