Fleeting Clouds, the Splendid Library is an original Chinese opera inspired by the Guoyunlou books, an encyclopaedic set covering 1000 years of knowledge. These books were kept by a family living in the Fleeting Clouds Mansion in the city of Suzhou, until they were sold in 2012. Phoenix Publishing and Media Group, the purchaser, commissioned this performance in recognition of the cultural significance of the Guonyunlou books.
The problem was that this show was heavily abridged from the version staged in China – scenes I could read in my programme did not appear on stage.
This background is unfortunately much more interesting than the story that unfolds on stage.
The story takes place in the 1930s, before the beginning of the Sino-Japanese war. Gu Linshi (Jiang Xiaomeng), a painter and the young owner of the Fleeting Clouds Mansion, encounters Yu Shenshu (Fang Lili), a beautiful young woman from a good family that has lost its money. They sing a song together and the next thing we know, they are getting married. It turns out that Gu is missing one book from his library, the Splendid Anthology of Ten-thousand Flowers, which Yu gives as part of her dowry.
This is roughly where the production become confusing as the English surtitles stopped working. I was able to follow along with the notes in the programme, but it soon became clear that the programme and surtitles used different translations, which made it tricky to find my place. The problem was that this show was heavily abridged from the version staged in China – scenes I could read in my programme did not appear on stage. Some are explained, others are not. Further confusing the matter, some of the title cards summarising what had happened (or filling a gap) appear in the wrong order.
This is a pity as Fang Lili and Jiang Xiaomeng are talented singers and there are some lovely moments of dance choreography. The set and costuming is luscious: diaphanous sections of scrim at the rear of the stage are painted with a village setting with a lovely animation projected and the vast troupe of performers wear a pastel array of silk traditional costumes.
Generally, there is little action taking place on stage – we don’t see Gu and Yu fall in love but learn it from the screen. So too we learn that Yu and Gu have had a son – but it is not clear how many years have passed.
While the full-length production might not have these issues, Fleeting Clouds, the Splendid Library was too declamatory for my liking and lacking story. The technical problems with the surtitles made the opera inaccessible to English speakers, but judging by the tepid response of Chinese members of the audience, they too struggled to make sense of the thin plot.