Beijing, safe to say, has a complicated relationship with its past. In much the same way that the city’s traditional architecture has often been demolished only to be recreated in museums, the latest opera commission from the National Centre for the Performing Arts has looked to Lao She, a writer whose mental and physical humiliation at the hands of the Red Guards led to his suicide at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.
Lao She’s Luotuo Xiangzi, known in English as Rickshaw Boy since its initial bestselling 1945 translation, has found potent incarnations on both stage and screen largely because of the universality of its title character, a simple labourer whose attempts to buy his own rickshaw are continually thwarted, not least by his unscrupulous boss Liu Siye and Liu’s predatory daughter Huniu. The story gained new lyrical life on Wednesday with the long-awaited premiere by the Beijing-based composer Guo Wenjing, for whom Rickshaw Boy marks his first opera commission from a Chinese organisation.
It was, by any measure, an inspired pairing. Lao She’s literary vernacular, which essentially planted the seeds of Dickens and Chekhov on Chinese soil, proved an admirable fit with Guo’s musical language, which likewise fuses disparate ingredients into a distinctively Chinese modernism.
Xu Ying’s limber libretto often distils pages of vivid novelistic description – atmospheric enough even in flawed translations to convey the scent of Beijing streets – into a few well-chosen lines for the illiterate hero, leaving plenty of room for the music. As characters reveal themselves, folk-like orchestration gradually grow more tonally adventurous, unveiling a wealth of sources, including a notable nod to Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth during Huniu’s seduction of Xiangzi.
At some two hours and 40 minutes, Rickshaw Boy is Guo’s longest – and most populist – stage work to date. Under conductor Zhang Guoyong, the episodic structure of the first half unfolded in a near-seamless flow. Only after intermission, with aria piling upon aria – and a thoroughly unnecessary recounting of Xiangzi’s misfortunes – did the momentum begin to diminish.
Tenor Han Peng’s Xiangzi remained a one-dimensional picture of affability. Compared to bass Haojiang Tian’s irredeemably despicable Liu, soprano Sun Xiuwei’s Huniu revealed a surprisingly sympathetic side. The NCPA’s chorus and casts have long revealed stronger dramatic commitment when singing in their native language; for once, the material justified the attention.
Rickshaw Boy may not be the Great Chinese Opera, but with some judicious pruning it might arguably be the Great Beijing Opera, which for the NCPA is pretty much the same thing.