A sophisticated but relatively recent theatrical genre, Jingju (Peking Opera) achieved its current form in the 19th century.
It draws on many Chinese traditions – dance, mime, martial arts and acrobatics, as well as acting and singing – and boasts a repertoire of around 1,400 pieces. (Jackie Chan has graphically described his punishing grounding as a young student at the China Drama Academy, a training school for Peking Opera performers).
Along with stylised singing and gesture, there are vibrantly colourful costumes and sets, painted faces that denote the type of character being played, and musical accompaniment performed by a group playing traditional Chinese instruments.
To Western audiences, the impression is more akin to a play with music, or of a sung pantomime, than ‘opera’. The swooping high-pitched singing and the pervasive crashing, pitch-bending gong were (literally) painfully exaggerated on first night by ear-splitting over-amplification.
Despite the stylisation of gesture, voice and accompaniment, the plot and character delineation are straightforward. Based on a Tang dynasty episode, the Emperor and the Concubine describes how the leader Minghuang Tang falls in love with Yuhuan Yang upon seeing her dance.
After she is banished for a misdemeanour, the emperor’s trusty adviser, Lishi Gao (affectingly intoned by Guosen Chen), reunites the couple. But her cousin’s new ambitions lead to a rebellion, prompting the emperor’s army to call for Yang’s execution.
With its colourful dragon- and phoenix-themed costumes, evocative backdrops and an impressive acrobatic display by warring soldiers – the production offers a breathtaking visual feast.