The 12-week run of The Palace of Eternal Youth (長生殿), part of the National Palace Museum’s New Melody (故宮新韻) program, took to the stage for the second time on Wednesday and proved that the Lanting Kun Opera Company (蘭庭崑劇團) has pulled off the difficult task of mixing and matching artwork held by the museum and the living cultural heritage of kun opera (崑曲).
Despite its short performance time, just over 90 minutes, Lanting’s production achieved the epic quality that is essential to the grandeur of The Palace’s theme. This was a fully realized staging, albeit on a miniature scale, and at no point did it feel like a hurried retelling of a well-known story.
The original opera, which in its full version has 50 acts, was massively reconfigured. Now narrated by the court musician Li Gui-nian (李龜年), a relatively minor character in the original, he introduces the story and its relationship to Emperor Ming-huang’s Flight to Szechwan (明皇幸蜀圖), a painting which dates from the latter part of the Tang Dynasty that details one of the events depicted in the opera and is on display at the museum.
The connection between the story and a physical object so closely associated with the occurrences the opera describes emphasizes the historical resonance of the people involved in The Palace of Eternal Youth, one of Chinese opera’s great tragic romances. The effect was thrilling, rather like the words “based on a true story” at the beginning of a movie. It is all too easy to forget that the tragic events of The Palace of Eternal Youth actually happened, and marked an important watershed in the history of the Tang Dynasty.
Playing art and history, drama and painting, off against each other to achieve a richer experience was the stated aim of the producers and this has undoubtedly been successfully achieved.
Li the musician introduces audience members to the action, talking them through the ancient painting that is projected onto the backdrop. He then turns the stage over to the performers, who recount the tale. It is not an easy transition to make, but Lanting pulls off this dramatic legerdemain with exemplary unobtrusiveness.
This production has been boiled down to the story’s absolute essentials, making use, in addition to the narrator, of the eunuch Kao Li-shi’s (高力士) “clown” role and two lady’s maids, to fill in background and engage in some light comedy that balances the high romance that takes place in the foreground.
In the relatively small space of the National Palace Museum’s auditorium (國立故宮博物院文會堂), which seats 250, nearly every audience member is able to watch the cast close up. As the production features notable performers drawn from Lanting and the Guoguang Opera Company (國光劇團), this is a rare opportunity to enjoy such top performers in intimate surroundings.
The costumes, which were specially designed for this production, managed to be ornate yet without the architectural qualities normally associated with opera outfits. This helps the performers impart the highly stylized movements and expressions of kun opera with a degree of naturalism that makes the romance more sensual. The sound reproduction quality was surprisingly good.
This was certainly no sideshow to an exhibition, but a bold departure for traditional theater. The 90-minute format is something that other troupes might well emulate to appeal to contemporary audiences. It also warrants a visit to the museum for people interested in an excellent introduction to kun opera. Admission is free and there are high-quality English side-titles.