Review: Farewell My Concubine (Echo Arena, Liverpool)

This was one of the most significant cultural events on Merseyside in many years. The world famous China National Peking Opera Company rarely visit the UK (they were last here 10 years ago) and when they do rarely perform outside London. They’ll be at Sadlers Wells next week, but it was both flattering and appropriate that their only other appearances should be in Liverpool, home of course to Europe’s oldest Chinese community (many of whom were amongst the enthusiastic audience, which was also marked by a strikingly wide age range).

A lot of people are likely to be familiar with the award-winning film Farewell My Concubine, in which the opera of the same name forms the backdrop to a story about the relationship between two performers who regularly appear in the piece. Here though was a rare opportunity to see the opera itself, in all its epic, spectacular glory.

And ‘spectacular’ is the operative word when it comes to Chinese opera, which much more than its Western counterpart incorporates dazzling costumes, acrobatic dancing, atmospheric music and elaborate use of mime as well as dramatic, emotional singing. The singing itself is different too, with a wailing, high-pitched intensity that adds to the mesmerizing strangeness of it all. There was plenty of dialogue as well, delivered less like natural speech than a kind of heightened, rhythmic version of it. Screens displayed English subtitles, which ensured all of the audience could follow what was going on.

Traditional Chinese operas are based on ancient myths and legends, and Farewell My Concubine tells a story from the third century BC. Two warrior lords, Xiang Yu and Liu Bang, have been waging a titanic struggle for power over many years and are now readying themselves for a final cataclysmic battle. When the honourable but somewhat foolish Xiang Yu is tricked and appears to be facing defeat, his devoted concubine Yu Ji refuses to desert him. It’s a classic tale of pride, treachery, tragedy and love, with an immensely moving finale.

The cast included one of Chinese opera’s leading stars, Yu Kuizhi, who played Liu Bang’s shrewd, calculating chief commander. The battle scenes were a breathtaking spectacle, and contrasted wonderfully with the more intimate, heartbreaking episodes featuring Xiang Yu and Yu Ji.

Following the Chinese tradition, there were spontaneous bursts of applause and cries of ‘Hao’ (‘Bravo’) throughout, before a rapturous ovation at the end for the superbly talented performers (and the equally impressive orchestra), who’d given the audience an evening none of us are likely to forget.

***** A magical night