On Thursday, the National Guoguang Opera Company’s (國立國光劇團) kun opera The Butterfly Lovers (崑劇 — 梁山伯與祝英台) opened at Taipei’s Metropolitan Hall (城市舞台) to an enthusiastic reception. Great things had been expected of male lead Wen Yuhang (溫宇航), a kun specialist who recently joined the company. He did not disappoint.
Wen’s performance as the impoverished scholar Liang Shanbo (梁山伯) who falls in love with the intelligent, spirited and above all wealthy young woman Zhu Yingtai (祝英台), with predictably tragic results, was a masterclass in the subtle expressiveness of the kun medium. Wen’s ability to segue from light comedy to tragedy is truly remarkable, allowing him to create the character of an idealistic yet self-deprecating young scholar who is able to laugh at his own romantic folly without undermining his sorrow when things turn sour. This is all the more remarkable given the constraints of a highly stylized operatic form.
Wen had strong support from Wei Chunrong (魏春榮), a leading light of the Shanghai Kun Opera Company, who played the female lead. In the first half of the show, Liang and Zhu get to know each other while studying together at a college, where Zhu is disguised as a young man (the college is technically all male). Wei, with her angular features and commanding presence, made a remarkably fine young man, and the budding romance is given substance by her fiery spirit. In this kun version, written in 2004 by Tseng Yong-yih (曾永義), Zhu has been made a much more forceful personality, a shift in emphasis that serves the story well, and does not merely pander to political correctness.
Chen Ching-ho (陳清河) in a clowning role and Tang Wen-hua (唐文華) as a narrator, both permanent members of Guoguang, were excellent in important supporting roles.
The success of this version of The Butterfly Lovers owes much to the clever pacing and variations of mood created by Tseng, who kept the story from spiraling into flabby histrionics with well-controlled snippets of comedy. While there was nothing ostentatiously modern about the production, Tseng, together with director Max Lee (李小平), did a fine job in making the show work within a modern theatrical context (traditional kun operas generally focus on star turns, with little attention given to structure).
The set design was simple, using abstract designs to serve a variety of purposes, and employed contemporary theatrical techniques in a manner that was not jarring in a traditional opera. Costumes were generally elegant, using simple brocade, but in the final scenes there was the inexplicable addition of gauzy drapery, with the deceased lovers parading around in some very unflattering yellow chiffon. This was the only stylistic blip in an otherwise solid production.