The Vast Grasslands
World premiere in October 1995
By the Liaoning Opera House
Composers: Xu Zhanhai, Liu Hui
Libretto: Huang Weiruo, Feng Baiming
Conductors: Shi Jiannan, Meng Xin, Cao Ding
Director: Cao Qijing
Set design: Gao Guangjian, Han Tao
First staged in 1995, The Vast Grasslands is famed as one of the most representative original works of Chinese opera, with its grand narratives and distinctive national style. It tells the epic story of the return of the Torghud Mongolian people in the 17th century, framing it as a complex dramatic conflict as seen through the eyes of a group of outstanding characters. Amid the flames of life and death, the work sings a long pastoral song about life, love, freedom and dignity.
Fighting against the cruel national oppressive policies of Tsarist Russia, Ubashi Khan leads his people eastward to return to their home in what is now Xinjiang. Aipeilei, coveting the throne, sows discord between Ubashi and Sereng, a general of the tribe who is wanted by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) government. The suicide of Narangova (a beautiful girl of the Torghud tribe and lover of Sereng) makes her beloved Sereng resolve to stick to the great journey. Overcoming all kinds of hardships, the Torghud people finally arrive at the homeland they have yearned for.
Containing deep and strong emotions, the musical language of the opera uses bleak and sublime expressions to create a solemn atmosphere. In terms of composition, it creatively combines arias and recitatives and employs poetic, rhyming spoken parts. All the five acts are connected using Mongolian long tunes, presenting a natural and flowing artistic effect. The composers fully utilize multipart methods and folk tunes to tell the story and evoke the images. For example, the reprising aria of Narangova is based on the Mongolian folk song The Cyan Horse. The intertwined long and short tunes in the melody remind the audience of the vast grasslands, as well as the freedom and enthusiasm of the Mongolian people. Meanwhile, the natural and plain singing style also depicts Narangova's passion, love and patriotic feelings.
In addition, the ingeniously designed orchestration also helps to create the characters. During the opera's prelude, the wise and mighty image of Ubashi is portrayed through an imposing ensemble of woodwind and brass groups, string sections and percussion, with concords full of tension and powerful tremolos. The gloomy minor sequence of G, Bb and D with added seconds played by woodwinds and string instruments vividly depicts the insidious Aipeilei and his crafty mind.
To highlight the epic style, a great number of ensembles and choruses are employed. The most representative ensemble work of this play, Ubashi, Are You Crazy? applies rich comparative methods in rhythm and range, creating colorful sound effects and fluctuating melodic movements.
Featuring many genres serving different functions, the choruses are composed by multiple polyphonic techniques such as canon form and contrastive two parts. Colorful harmonies and various contrastive skills also cooperate to make the choruses distinctive, with rich timbres and strong Mongolian themes. All of these creative methods help to establish the opera's magnificent and dramatic musical scenes.
*Names of the characters are transliterated.