Rickshaw Boy Rolls Through Italy

ItalyItaly Guo, Rickshaw Boy: National Centre for the Performing Arts Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Zhang Guoyong (conductor), Teatro Carlo Felice, Genoa, 29.9.2015 (RP)

Tian as Liusiye in Rickshaw Boy
Tian as Liusiye in Rickshaw Boy (c) Xioa Yi.

Guo, Rickshaw Boy


Director & Set Design: Yi Liming
Costume & Make-Up Design: A Kuan
Lighting Design: Qang Qi


Xiang  Zi: Han Peng
Hu Niu: Sun Xiuwei
Master Liu: Tian Haojiang
Xiao Fuzi: Yuanming
Er Qiangzi: Wang Hexiang
Detective Sun: Liang Yufeng

Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) is touring Italy with Guo Wenjing’s Rickshaw Boy. Premiered in June 2014, it is the fifth opera commissioned by the NCPA in an effort to create a body of Chinese grand operas that can stand beside those in the standard repertoire. Guo and his librettist, Xu Ying, turned to one of the classics of 20th-century Chinese literature for inspiration. Lao She’s tale of the aspirations, triumphs, betrayals and ultimate disillusionment of the title character, Xiang Zi, first published in 1937, has long resonated outside of China. The first English translation was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in the US in the late 1940’s, and more recently Rickshaw Boy made it on to a list of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. The author, caught up in the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, committed suicide in 1966, but he was long ago rehabilitated, and his books are widely read and his plays regularly performed.

In the 1930s, the central character, the orphaned Xiang Zi arrives in Beijing, young, strong, idealistic and ambitious, with a dream of owning his own rickshaw. Through hard work he achieves his goal, but his hopes are repeatedly dashed and his spirit ultimately crushed. He is taken prisoner by a marauding bunch of soldiers who steal his rickshaw. Escaping with three camels (thus gaining the nickname Camel Boy, the original Chinese title of the novel), he sets out to again work his way up from the bottom of the heap. He is loved by one woman, who tricks him into marriage by falsely claiming she is pregnant, and loves another, whose drunken father, a former rickshaw boy, forces her into prostitution. He encounters seemingly benevolent men who appreciate his work ethic and provide him with opportunities and shelter, but he is a disposable commodity in a dog-eat-dog world.

The sets for NCPA’s touring production are as monumental as Beijing itself.  One of the city’s old gates looms over the hutongs (the fast disappearing narrow streets and alleys of China’s northern cities) where the tale of the Camel Boy unfolds. The costumes are of the period and are richly colored. Red is the traditional color for Chinese brides, and Hu Niu’s wedding dress with its extravagant veil was exotic and beautiful. The acrobats that performed at the wedding celebration were terrific – one in particular somersaulting with astonishing speed. Camels made their appearance too, albeit costumed humans as opposed to real ones. And of course there were rickshaws, the most handsome being the one that Xiang Zi toiled so hard to buy and that was so quickly stolen from him.

The cast was comprised of some of China’s finest singers, all with international careers. Han Peng, with his clear, ringing tenor, was convincing as the idealistic young Xiang Zi, but less so when his character’s hopes evaporated and he faced the grim reality of his existence. Sun Xiuwei possesses a strong soprano with an edge to it that suited the character of Hu Niu, who weds Xiang Zi in defiance of her father, Master Liu, and dies giving birth to their stillborn son. You liked Hu Niu in spite of her veniality because her love for Camel Boy burned with such intensity. Yuanming is possessed of a beautiful, lyric soprano voice. Love, more than despair, prevailed in her characterization of the doomed Fuzi, who opts for suicide over the life of a prostitute. The cruelty of her alcoholic father was vividly portrayed by baritone Wang Hexiang. Master Liu was the most complex characterization on stage, due to the fine acting and expressive singing of bass baritone Tian Haojiang. His is a commanding stage presence.

While it took a while for most of the cast and orchestra to adjust to the acoustics of the theater, conductor Zhang Guoyong maintained balance throughout. This was not always as easy task as the singers have to compete against some heavy orchestrations, especially Han Peng in his final aria when he is up against the brass section. The chorus was excellent. The four rickshaw boys drawn from their ranks livened up the stage, whether as Ziang Xi’s friendly colleagues in Master Liu’s rickshaw stable, or his tormenters when he runs off with their boss’s daughter. Those guys can sing and act.

Guo Wenjing composes in a style that is readily accessible to modern audiences, favoring rich colors and dense orchestrations. There is a ring of truth to his observation that Rickshaw Boy “is completely a Mahler-style symphony.” He is particularly adept at creating music themes that link the characters with the orchestra. There is little exotic orientalism, but he makes effective use of the sanxian, a three-stringed lute, and the suona, a loud, expressive reed instrument used primarily in outdoor celebrations. The latter is almost a character in the opera, its haunting tone and piercing sound celebrating both Hu Niu’s wedding and mourning her death. The grand choral tribute to Beijing, which Lao She describes as “filthy, beautiful, decadent, bustling, chaotic, idle, lovable…but the only friend that Xiang Zi ever had,” was the one real love song in the score, although it did not serve as a fitting end to the opera.

And thus the problem: the music never lagged but the drama did. Xu Yin pared down and adapted the story, but Rickshaw Boy still has the feel of a work in progress. Lan She’s complex plot is a challenge to distill into operatic dimensions, as the book has at least three themes running concurrently: Xiang Zi’s love for his rickshaw, the doomed love triangle, and the Camel Boy’s enchantment with Beijing. The extended duet between Hu Niu and Fuxi is the musical and dramatic high point of the opera, but is too long. Xiang Zi’s refusal to tell Master Liu where his daughter is buried, an important scene near the end of the book, is glossed over in the opera. A rich man, who rejects his daughter when she marries against his will, and faces bitter remorse upon her death, is  the stuff of which of which opera is made. Why not go for it? Likewise, there has to be a better way to work in the political upheaval and execution of one of the peripheral characters, or perhaps it should be omitted altogether. As performed in Genoa, the story did not end: the audience was left hanging as to Xiang Zi’s fate. That needs to be fixed.

Rickshaw Boy opens with a driving, whirling theme that captures the spin of a rickshaw’s wheels, the speed at which the men pedal through Beijing, and the crushing, relentless pace of life in the city. Although it reappears briefly near the end, it is what I longed to hear as the curtain closed. Xiang Zi’s dreams are shattered, but there are young men still pouring into Beijing and yearning to pull a rickshaw. It is the only chance they have. Guo Wenjing captured that feeling so effectively at the beginning that he might just consider returning to it. Then what has transpired will have come full circle.


Rick Perdian