Matteo Ricci in Opera, A Peking Opera Tour from Shanghai to Italy
The story of an inspiring and important friendship, the one between the Italian scientist – missionary Matteo Ricci and China statesman and scientist Xu Guangqi has become an operatic piece. Last July 2015 the Shanghai Theatre Academy brought to Italy a theatrical play, in Peking Opera style, entitled “Padre Matteo Ricci in Opera”. The play narrates the life of the Jesuit mathematician missionary to Late Ming China and his encounter with Shanghai born Xu Guangqi, called Doctor Paul by Jesuit missionaries. Three prestigious theatrical houses in Milan, Macerata and Verona housed the Opera.
After the debut in Milan (on which we will return later), the troupe travelled to Macerata and Verona. The two steps were possible thanks to the timing initiative of Verona’s based Officina Contemporanea per l’innovazione di arti e mestieri (Contemporary Workshop for the innovation of arts and professions), led by Roberto Bianconi; and Macerata based Li Madou Study Centre, a group of hard-working Chinese priests engaged in academic projects. Macerata and Verona religious and civil institutions also supported the remarkable but somewhat unusual event.
In Macerata, the hometown of Matteo Ricci, it was played on July 21th, at Lauro Rossi Theatre, an opera house with a history of over 400 years. The audience included the local mayor and descendants of Matteo Ricci, who spoke highly about the play.
The third stop, on July 24th, was Verona, one of the most beautiful Italian cities, universally renowned hometown of the Shakespearian heroes Juliet and Romeo. The played was performed in the city’s most prestigious theatre, the Filarmonico. The numerous public was fascinated by the opera, which blended European and Chinese themes in an atmosphere rarely experienced by most.
Matteo Ricci has been regarded by scholars as one of the best men in human history, as he was able to bring together two of the most celebrated civilizations of all time, the Chinese Ming and the European Humanism. And he did it through a friendly dialogue based on science, culture and religion. Ricci was a cultural and religious ambassador, still regarded by Chinese as a friend, called Xitai, i.e. a Confucian scholar from the West. He has made impressive impact in China history. In Beijing, at the Millennium Monument, Matteo Ricci, together with Marco Polo, is the only foreign included in the list of one hundred great people in China’s history.
Matteo Ricci could not have achieved his remarkable results without the collaboration, support and protection of his Chinese friends. Paul Xu Guangqi was certainly the most remarkable among them, but not the only one. The bond between imperial official Xu Guangqi and Li Madou (Ricci’s Chinese name) is indeed extraordinary and exceptional, if compared with the immoral and corrupt figures that populated the imperial courts, both in China and Europe, in the sixteenth century (and unfortunately even now). This friendship continues inspiring many people as it is a evocative platform for an ever greater relationship between China and Italy. Not only, it is also meaningful for the promotion of religious freedom and peace in the world.
The play mixes, to a certain extent, the traditional Italian “commedia dell’arte” (comedy of the arts) and the movements, the costumes and the colors of the traditional Peking opera. The result is an hour of fascinating show, with original music and 12 custom characters.
The plot moves from a historical episode, narrated by Ricci in his letters: a violent assault and a robbery that he suffered. The magistrate sentences the perpetrators to death, but the missionary offers his pardon and their lives are spared (until this point the play’s narration and the history coincides). In the play, the magistrate does not want to pardon, until the respected official Xu Guangqi offers his support in favor of the missionary. The two become inseparable and trusted friends. One of the criminals, moved by the mercy of the missionary, becomes his disciple.
In a country where the death penalty is still carried out with excessive rigor (China has the highest number of executions), the opera unconventionally explores the theme of death penalty offering remarkable moral and civil lesson. The director William Su is quite explicit about that. While in Italy, he has declared that “my appeal against the death penalty contradicts the Chinese culture and legislation, and will surprise my countrymen”.1
In one scene, a charming woman askes the Jesuit to justify his refusal to engage in a sentimental relationship. Matteo tells the woman of his faith and commitment to serve God without reservations. The director Su illustrates the religious inspiration of Ricci’s activity in China (often overlooked by contemporary official narration), proving that the Confucian virtue of compassion is conducive to the true teaching of Christianity. Su, who is also the creator of the Opera, added that he hopes to bring the Opera to the Vatican, before Pope Francis.