Unlike younger, better-known Chinese composers whose childhoods were shaped by the Cultural Revolution, Jin Xiang had finished his musical training before his world collapsed. Banished to the countryside and forbidden to compose until 1979, Jin returned to music with abandon, as if trying to wield the entire 20th century at once. This in large part explains his first opera, Savage Land.
For audiences in 1987, whose standard fare was minzu folk operas such as The White-Haired Girl, Jin was a radical innovator. To American audiences in 1992, when Savage Land appeared at the Washington Opera, his various channellings of Stravinsky, Bartók and Prokofiev seemed ready-made for repertory, even if the sources weren’t quite digested. Thus the opera’s peculiar position: Savage Land can sound either timeless or dated, often in the same evening.
The opera has had a few revivals since then, though safe to say none as elaborate and thoughtful as Li Liuyi’s production last week at the Beijing Music Festival. Much of the difficulty is the source material: Cao Yu’s 1936 play Wilderness concerns a man escaping wrongful imprisonment who returns to destroy the family of the landlord who had him arrested, ruining himself in the process. Though filled with operatic passion, the story is short on post-1949 communist sympathies, and despite lip service to the “evils of feudalism” in an opening-night talk, little in Jin’s music waves an ideological banner either.
Li, whose 2000 production of Wilderness at the Beijing People’s Art Theatre was officially denounced for ignoring “class struggle”, duly focuses on the human element in the opera as well. As the prison escapee, baritone Yuan Chenye’s anger was tempered by his feelings for soprano Zhang Liping, herself sympathetically trapped in a loveless marriage to the landlord’s son. Tenor Zhang Jianyi mixed bluster with frustration as her cuckold husband, while mezzo-soprano Liang Ning as the landlord’s blind widow struggled in vain to hold her family together. Deftly delineated in Emi Wada’s costumes, these were not stock portrayals but fully formed, psychologically rich characters. Conductor Huang Yi led the China Philharmonic and the chorus of the China Dance and Drama Company to fine dramatic effect. The only distraction was the barely coherent surtitles.
What Savage Land lacks in focus it makes up for in urgency. Indeed, there’s more fire in each of its four acts than in all of the new operas developed by Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts put together.