The 52nd HK Arts Festival

Peking Opera Classics Return to Hong Kong

Text / Elbe Lau , Rebecca Lee

Following a stellar performance at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in 2018, the China National Peking Opera Company (CNPOC) returns in 2024 with an array of classics. The programme includes the Peking opera version of Princess Changping, and the excerpts "Writing a Petition", "Feigned Madness" and "Golden Palace" from The Cosmos Sword, and "Blocking the Way of the Prime Minister", "Bearing the Rod and Asking for Punishment" and "Reconciliation" from Reconciliation between the General and the Prime Minister, Escorting Su San to Trial and The Zhuge Liang Trilogy. Led by top artists Yu Kuizhi and Li Shengsu, the acclaimed troupe will showcase the high artistry of Peking opera from multiple perspectives.

The Cosmos Sword is unquestionably one of the most challenging plays on the programme, and this classic of the Mei school of Peking opera gives equal weight to both singing and acting. The essence of the performance is packed into the excerpts "Writing a Petition" and "Golden Palace"—the former centres on desolation and helplessness, the latter on bitterness and courage. According to Li Shengsu, who has long been a practitioner of the Mei school, the essence of lead role Zhao Yanrong's feigned madness is to "forget" her sense of shame and conscience when she pretends to be mad in order to avoid being made a royal concubine.

Alternating between great tension and calmness, the role requires an artist to depict a fierce internal struggle and portray madness with composure, as Mei Maestro Mei Lanfang once did exquisitely.

The troupe will also present a long-running title that's suitable for all, Reconciliation Between the General and the Prime Minister. The piece focuses on the roles of a laosheng (old male) and a hualian (painted face), creating two characters opposite in personality but equally admirable. In the key excerpt "Bearing the Rod and Asking for Punishment ", the principal aria "Assisting Zhao" recounts how Prime Minister Lin Xiangru perseveres through humiliation for the state he serves. Meanwhile, General Lian Po, a distinctive character with great pride and willfulness, proves himself a man of integrity by expressing regret for his past actions. The two let go of their personal sentiments for the wellbeing and security of the state, displaying great loyalty. 

Princess Changping is another masterpiece with a patriotic theme. After a successful performance at the HKAF in 2018, the CNPOC is set to return with this acclaimed adaptation of the Cantonese opera classic in 2024. One difference between Peking and Cantonese opera is the way they present emotions. In the original Cantonese opera version, the deep affection and infatuation between Yam Kim-fai and Pak Suet-sin, who famously played the lead roles, has long captivated audiences. However, Peking opera is traditionally more conventional and more subtle than Cantonese opera. The director of the Peking opera version refers to the work as "a romantic tragedy with strong love and stronger resentment", praising the princess and her consort for "showing iron resolve in their love for the country, thereby allowing audiences to understand the character of the nation" through the couple's resentment towards the new regime.

The creative team of the Peking opera version has retained the most important scenes from the original, including "Vows Under the Trees", "Reunion in a Convent", "Negotiating with the Qing Emperor" and "Death of the Lovers". It also transformed and rearranged the famous melody of the song Autumn Meditation in the Boudoir from the Cantonese opera version throughout the entire drama. In addition, the use of different types of roles also broke new ground. Yu Kuizhi is known as China's No 1 performer of old male roles and, when playing the part of the consort Zhou Shixian, adds a touch of mellowness to the domineering role, highlighting the plot's tragic and desolate side. Hong Kong audiences who are familiar with the Cantonese opera version of Princess Changping will find much to savour and enjoy in this Peking opera version presented by one of the country's leading opera companies.

First Troupe of the China National Peking Opera Company

Date:26-28 Feb 2024

Venue:Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre