Opera's insightful look at the human state



Singapore Chinese Orchestra

Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts

Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Saturday

The Chinese love a good ghost story and Esplanade's Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts delivered a coup in Painted Skin (Hua Pi), an opera in concert by Chinese composer Hao Weiya and librettist Wang Yuanfei.

Directed by Yi Liming, its world premiere in Shanghai last October was also given by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) with three soloists and conducted by Yeh Tsung.

Adapted from a popular story in Pu Songling's Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio, the plot involves a love affair between a scholar and a demon in human disguise. Thus its title usually refers to nefarious intentions cloaked in a veneer of geniality.

Performed by a chamber-sized SCO numbering 29 players, the music was stark but highly atmospheric, transparent and often atonal, in the manner of the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg and Berg.

Each of the four acts opened with guan solos by Han Lei, tortuous wails foreshadowing the intrigue and drama to come.

The gender reversals in the cast were also telling. The only male role, Scholar Wang, was sung by mezzo-soprano Dong Fang while love interest Gui Yan, a succubus in Beijing opera garb, was played by actor Liu Zheng. Her pale outfit with a face to match, and onstage moonwalking, should have alerted Wang of the deception but smitten poets were not to be denied.

Wang's seemingly virtuous wife, sung by soprano Li Jing Jing, provided the final side of this eternal triangle.

Each act had a duet as its centrepiece, helping to flesh out the characters and their motivations.

However, it was the third act's ballad of the scorned wife, with the ubiquitous guan providing poignant counterpoint to Li's angst, which was likely to move most hearts.

Two short interludes between acts gave Gui Yan, ironically, a more human face.

Her endeavour was to seek out a heart of purity (namely Wang's), possess it and leave the realm of demons forever. Wang's reciprocation was, however, less honourable. His transition from fascination to captivation to outright lust was easily accomplished on a slippery slope.

On the spartan stage, symbolism reigned supreme. Wang's umbrella was a phallic presence while the couple's space-age raincoats-for-outfits were foils for deeper and darker secrets. Dripping rain, interweaving hands and flowers swirling in water projected on a large screen also substituted for acts of consummation.

On probing recesses of the human heart, was its colour crimson or black?

All was revealed in the fourth and longest act, which was also the most climactic. That its tragi-comedic final confrontation provided the audience with the most laughs should not diminish the stature of the 95-minute opera, performed without intermission.

That the best of demons could also cuss like the worst of people was an indictment of the human state. People's hearts, despite the cover of painted skin, is as black as pitch.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 25, 2019, with the headline 'Opera's insightful look at the human state'. Print Edition | Subscribe