The Legend of the Chinese Song Fairy was brought to us by Ausfeng Event Productions and presented by China National Opera and Dance Drama Theatre (CNODDT). A classic Chinese opera - Liu Sanjie in Concert made its way out of China for the first time to make its Australian debut in a world premiere. It was a one night only event on 17 Dec 2019 at Art Centre Melbourne's Hamer Hall, complete with costumed actors available for photo opportunities and was well attended.
The concert originates from the original film of the same name that was much loved and has entertained millions for over half a century. Renowned folk songs were performed by two of China's acclaimed performers Ning Jiang and Pan Wu who were the stars of the show in a performance featuring 56 artists. A 40 person choir was conducted by Dawei Li, accompanied by Biyan Duan on piano.
By adapting the beautiful story of Liu Sanjie, a cultural icon of Chinese Folk Music, Producer Zhao Haifeng keeps the story alive through theatre for more and more people to discover Guilin and the classic folk songs. Half a century later, many of the songs are still remembered and recognised today. Established in 1951 presenters CNODDT have produced a number of popular opera and dance dramas, and continue to foster a large number of performers who have enjoyed great success across China.
A made-for-touring performance, this is an inspiring story of courage, hope and love amongst the myths and legends of the Guangxi Zhuang ethnic group; Liu Sanjie, a legendary folk singer known as the Chinese Song Fairy. It is said that through her songs, she gave the impoverished people who suffer from inequality, a voice.
The story is set amongst a conflict between rich and poor, a fight against oppressive forces. Ning Jiang as Liu Sanjie and Pan Wu as A Niu meet when Liu Sanjie comes to A Niu's small village and is taken in by the villagers as their own. She stays with A Niu's family which includes his father and sister and repays the kindness of the villagers with her songs which uplifts their spirits and encourages hope. This story demonstrates the integrity and courage of the Zhuang people.
Our heroine is no demure shrinking violet. She's witty, intelligent and speaks her mind through song. On her way over to the village on a bamboo raft down the river, Liu Sanjie demonstrates early on her courage, by fighting for her right of way to pass the Prince of Jingjang and his daughter in a singing contest with the Princess. Her next conquest is when corrupt landlord Mo tries to seize the plantation unfairly.
She challenges him to a singing competition, with the winner taking all, as the end result. Mo enlists 3 scholars to compete with her, but they are defeated. This doesn't stop Mo who is now enamoured by our heroine and wants her for himself. He trumps up charges against her for being a menace to society with her persuasive ways and has her arrested. When A Niu tries to rescue his now beloved, he is found, tied and thrown into the river.
The Prince and his daughter learn of the events and rescue Liu Sanjie, taking Mo into custody for his crimes. Though they offer Liu Sanjie a place in their palace, she chooses to carry on down the river in search of her lost love A Niu whom she believes is a strong swimmer with the capacity to free himself of his bonds. The scene ends with the villagers looking on as Liu Sanjie's singing voice is heard behind the curtains, fading, as she looks for A Niu.
The stage is set with nothing but a backdrop scene in blue representing the majestic Li river in mountainous Guangxi province in this concert-style production and goes to red for a scene set in a cave. The pianist and conductor are on the left of the stage with translations projected onto screens either side of the stage. It does distract from the performance as the words come hard and fast for those who need to read it to understand the story. A few of the typical Chinese proverbs when translated does make for interesting reading. The sound was crystal clear, while Lighting basically stayed brightly lit the whole time with no room for setting the mood, or spotlighting poignant moments. The pianist was so in sync with the production and worked so well together, it blended perfectly with the performance.
I have no doubt the witty lyrics sung by Ning Jiang were a delight to listen to in its natural language as it was already funny and clever enough in its translation. There are also dialogue scenes amongst the musical numbers. The villagers were dressed in plain colours of blues and greys predominantly which made the principal characters stand out in their more vividly coloured costumes, with the scholars dressed in soft pastels, perhaps to show their more cultured side. The choral numbers were beautifully conducted with the duets showing off Pan Wu's rich golden tenor. His voice was clear and filled with warmth and expression and really stood out.
The acting styles are perhaps more appropriate to traditional styles of Chinese theatre but doesn't quite sit naturally in a 'for western' performance. It's all a little staged and not really convincing and sometimes a little over the top and exaggerated. It stands out even more as there are no sets to speak of to distract the audience. However, if you take in the overall presentation in its cultural entirety, you can do naught but to experience and enjoy its cultural uniqueness.
Still, it made me wish lighting had been more interactive and sensitive to the story and I would love to have seen the whole stage fade to black in the end scene, with just the heroine softly spotlighted, standing on a bamboo raft, paddling down the river as she forlornly sings in search of her love A Niu. This is the first theatre show I've ever seen where the audience leaves before the actors and was slightly amused by it. No mystery there as the actors stayed on to pose for official pictures with dignitaries and I took my chance to go upfront and get a look close up. Ning Jiang was very accommodating to the fans as she posed for numerous pictures with them. It was very uplifting and joyous having the audience applause loud and long to celebrate this first-time performance out of China and overall a fantastic night out at the theatre for both performers and audience alike.