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War! What is it Good For?

Apparently, the classics are in vogue again. Just note the blockbuster cinematic success of John Woo’s recent take on the historic Red Cliff, as well as the ode to Peking Opera, Forever Enthralled. The National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) is taking advantage of this cultural moment by staging a Peking Opera production of Red Cliff that shares the same plot line as John Woo’s new film. Zhang Jigang, the deputy chief director of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, has signed on as general director.

Taking place just before the Three Kingdoms period (220 BC-80 AD), the battle of Red Cliff is notorious as one of the greatest in China’s history, peopled by unforgettable characters. The aggressive northern warlord Cao Cao is threatening to invade south of the Yangtze, an area controlled by two southern warlords, Liu Bei and Sun Quan. Alone, neither army stands a chance against Cao Cao’s hordes, but Liu Bei sends his cunning military councilor, Zhuge Liang, to Sun Quan to persuade him to make an alliance. After a fierce debate, Sun Quan agrees. The two southern warlords rise up to defeat Cao Cao in a triumphant victory.

The NCPA has gone to great lengths to make the tale fresh and appealing to younger audiences. “The entire opera has been recomposed and rewritten,” says project manager Li Bo. “Instead of a small ensemble of traditional melodic and percussion instruments, we have a live orchestra, which consists of 66 people.”

Opening with a bevy of willowy ladies-in-waiting in delicate costumes, the opera swaps John Woo’s violent portrayal of the battlefield action for a poetic one.

One-hundred-and-eighty hand-embroidered silk costumes create a vibrant scene reminiscent of a Chinese ink and wash painting, while the fighting is represented by an impressive kung fu sequence.

One of the most famous fight scenes, Borrowing Arrows from Scarecrow Soldiers on Boats, is staged wonderfully – a 7-meter boat is set ablaze after a skiff is rained down upon by hundreds of arrows. Compared to John Woo’s film – which includes some rather cheesy character-establishing scenes, such as when Zhuge Liang helps Sun Quan’s general Zhou Yu to deliver a foal from his favorite mare – the Peking Opera version devotes more time to the solemn historical scenes. Despite a few questionable passages, the devotion to the original story remains firm throughout, ensuring this opera is a magnificent stage production of an epic tale.

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