In 1598, while Shakespeare was hitting his prime, the writer Tang Xianzu (1550–1616) produced one of China’s touchstone works, The Peony Pavilion. Conceived on the gigantic scale apparently customary in premodern Chinese literature, Tang’s opera scored an equally gigantic, lasting success, both onstage and in print. Played complete, it takes nearly an entire day: The most notable recent production, by the innovative director Chen Shi-Zheng in 1999, ran 18-plus hours. Its unveiling was delayed a year by the Chinese government, which stigmatized Chen’s approach as, among other things, “pornographic” and “feudal.”
That same government has now approved a two-hour condensed Peony Pavilion, by Nanjing’s China Jinling Dance Company, which displayed it last week at Lincoln Center. Entirely danced, this rendition nowhere evokes either pornography or feudalism. Skimming the bare highlights of Tang’s elaborately tangled narrative, it’s pure showbiz spectacle, often delightfully pretty, but about as emotionally gripping or meaningful as one of Radio City’s glitterier events—and so highly Westernized in style as to resemble those events far more than it does anything we’d call “Chinese opera.”
I’m no expert on that form, which fuses dance, mime, acrobatics, acting, singing, and storytelling, all in a language opaque to me and a musical system I only vaguely grasp, its stylized performance conventions as remote from my usual theatergoing experience as Bournonville is from David Mamet. In a sense, I found the Jinling version’s easy accessibility its most disheartening aspect: Whatever might make the work Chinese and ancient had been smoothed away.
Often compared to Romeo and Juliet, Tang’s tale shares motifs with other Western myths, including Orpheus and Eurydice, Sleeping Beauty, and even Cinderella. Du Liniang (Xu Xinyu), a romantic young girl, sees her predestined lover, Liu Mengmei (Han Bo), in a dream, pines for him, sickens, and dies. Liu, finding her deathbed self-portrait, is equally smitten. Divine intervention, via the underworld, finally brings Du back to life so the lovers can unite.
In flowing pastel costumes under shimmering pastel lights, hordes of people, mostly unlisted in the program, scurried across the stage to music that largely suggested Hollywoodized sub-Tchaikovsky with hints of chinoiserie. Some of the choreography (by a triumvirate) was inventive; the dancing, often acrobatic, was entirely first-rate, even though a principal’s injury meant that the two leads were danced by understudies. But of what makes Tang Xianzu admired and his story a Chinese perennial, the event revealed nothing.