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A bat flew around the auditorium of Saigon’s diminutive Opera House last Saturday even as the five-piece orchestra struck up – first evidence that it was going to be the Vietnamese theatre-going experience itself, rather than anything that happened on stage, that was to provide the more memorable experience.

The building itself is a gem dating from 1899, its stage higher than it is wide, and all the nicer for having only 550 seats.

But the whole evening evoked the relaxed conditions long gone from theatres in the west. People came and went as they pleased, chatted throughout, and photographed the action on their cell-phones.

Children ran around in the aisles selling single red roses. Appreciation for the high points – often vocal flourishes lasting only a few seconds – was immediate and intense.

Few patrons were distracted by the bat. They were there to witness again Lan và Diêp, a Vietnamese opera in the beloved Cai Luong tradition, a story of young love come to grief, and a Vietnamese village Romeo and Juliet if ever there was one.

Cai Luong is not in itself old. Developed in the early 20th century out of Mekong Delta folk elements, and dubbed the “southern style”, it swept all Vietnam in the 1950s.

Today Saigon’s city government is promoting the art form, too often heard only in cabaret excerpts.

Spoken and sung scenes alternated, as did comic and serious ones. The result was a Shakespearean mixture of low and high, the domestic and the sublime, farcical scenes culminating in a protracted tragic one, a musical threnody with the boy carrying his dead love down a flight of steps into the stalls to universal applause.

Even while the band was still playing the stagehands were dismantling the set, and the audience departed leaving only peanut shells and empty plastic bottles.

The few patrons who remained ran forward and embraced the performers.

Theatrical simplicity coexisted with elements of an archaic style somewhat run to seed, but still capable of moments of extraordinary intricacy and artifice.

Its strength lay in its ageless character. The greatest love stories never end happily, and this production demonstrated once again why young love’s force and poignancy can only be fully expressed through tragedy.
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