Exeunt Review: The General and The Prime Minister

Exeunt Review: The General and The Prime Minister

Originally published on Exeunt

When thinking of the word ‘opera’, you might conjure up images of grandiose stages with equally opulent costumes and sets, a full orchestra and the traditional diva taking centre stage for her big aria. But how about when you’re thinking of traditional Chinese opera? Suddenly, none of these Western stereotypes quite fit anymore – sure there are lush, brightly coloured costumes, but there’s no sight of the classical orchestra or indeed the confident soloist warming up for her glass-shattering soprano top note. China National Peking Opera Company’s current tour showcases two productions that simultaneously contradict and complement the pre-conceived Victorian version of the well-known and much-loved 400-year-old musical form.

Within the tradition of Chinese opera itself, which came into being around the late 18th century, this production of The General & The Prime Minister is performed in the classical style. The company doesn’t aim to re-invent, contemporise or bring an alternative viewpoint to proceedings; it honours and pays homage to the traditional setting. The vibrant, if somewhat garish, costumes; the short, sharp, powerful vocal style; the instrumentation; even the striking painted faces of some of the jing characters are all facets of this distinctive genre.

Each and every performer here could teach a thing or two about subtlety to a Western operatic performer. A simple flick of the wrist or nod of the head is planned and precise, conveying secret messages about the character’s influence, motives, even emotion, to an audience member well versed in decoding this mystical language. The masters of this craft, Yu Kuizhi and Yang Chi, adopt just the slightest differences in stance or phrase the dialogue with the minutest changes in inflection to suddenly transform from hero to villain, or from strong and confident to plagued with self-doubt. None conveys this better than Yang Chi, who despite wearing a painted face half-covered by a thick white beard, morphs from a proud, stubborn general into a humble servant simply by manipulating his beard and shifting his body weight – tiny changes that effect profound transformations.

Another distinction between opera from each side of the globe is the way The General & The Prime Minister uses both operatic verse and spoken word. Both have distinct meanings, purpose and power. And both can elicit an exuberant “Hao” from an audience that applaud far more frequently than their regular counterparts in the Royal Opera House or Coliseum. The vocal passages lack the dynamic or timbre traditionally found in Western opera – gone are the soprano, alto, tenor and bass divisions that demarcate characters. Instead, each singer exhibits absolute precision in the delivery of their line, every sound given an exact meaning and intention. It isn’t difficult to imagine that on any night’s performance, you could witness the same perfectly precise sound, vocal and response from the performers. Power emanates from the group as a whole – despite their tendency not to sing as a group (indeed there is no opera chorus to speak of), the matching of the vocal line to the instrumental accompaniment intensifies the delivery all the more.

Not only is this a vocal performance but a physical one as well – acrobatics and carefully choreographed fight sequences are part and parcel of the overall production. In line with the rest of Sun Guiyuan’s direction, every movement is a mixture of carefully honed technique and graceful elegance, the dancers floating across the stage as if weightless, silent as assassins. Pace isn’t important here as the ferocity of the battle is conveyed through each deliberate action, a slow motion whirlwind of brilliant colour being driven onward by the unrelenting metallic percussion, twanging strings and pentatonic scale.

Many in the West will feel there has been a veil of secrecy surrounding the cultural past of China and its geographical neighbours. This gap between cultures is now narrowing, in part through being bridged by the digital revolution. As such, being ever more able to mark and celebrate the differences in art forms such as opera can only serve to broaden our appreciation of the traditions of both. Moreover, the chance to see companies like the China National Peking Opera Company perform in London is, for any avid theatregoer, a complete privilege.

PRODUCED BY Sinolink Productions


WRITTEN BY Weng Ouhong; Wang Jiezhu

CAST INCLUDES Cast: Yu Kuizhi; Yang Chi; Liu Lei; Hu Bin; Ma Xiangfei; Guo Xiaolei; Liu Kuikui; Wang Haoqiang; Wang Yu. Musicians: Su Guangzhong; Ye Guang