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November 30, 2000

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A lavish opera in the Forbidden City presents Puccini with Chinese characteristics

By Enrique Subercaseaux / Beijing

Photo Essay The spectacle of Turandot in pictures

Also Playing Across town, a Sichuan Opera version

INDEED, AS THE PROMOTERS had promised, it was the operatic performance of the century. Giacomo Puccini's Turandot, staged outdoors over nine September evenings in Beijing's Forbidden City, presented an extravagant melange of East and West.

Even though the first words of the libretto, addressed to the chorus, are "People of Beijing," Turandot is not a Chinese opera. It is, rather, a Western work based on an Eastern story, probably originating in Chinese legend. The drama centers around Turandot, the cruel princess who has resolved that she will only marry a royal suitor who can correctly answer her three riddles. Any man who fails the test will be beheaded. And in the first scene, one is, though the deed is carried out safely off-stage.

While Chinese arts deal with symbols, Italian opera concentrates on emotions. Puccini, the most famous exponent of the verismo school of opera (which, freely translated, means showing the emotions of real life), simply overwhelms his scores with drama. Of course, Turandot has some Chinese melodies and instrumentation, but its musical structure is unmistakably Western. It is the magical setting, the direction and the atmosphere here that are memorably Chinese.

The complexities involved in any operatic staging are enormous: translating the score into a coherent spectacle, while balancing the parts of orchestra, chorus and soloists. Over time, it seems that the only role to have gotten simpler in this intricate combination is that of the soloists: the wily prima-donnas are nearly a thing of the past, and the egos of the tenors seem to have been tamed. So these days supremacy rests with the musical conductor and the stage-designer/director.

Luckily, Beijing presented a great combination of both in Maestro Zubin Mehta and Director Zhang Yimou. Mehta is one of the foremost Turandot interpreters and has recorded what is generally considered the best version of Puccini's last opera, featuring Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballé at their considerable prime. Then, as now, he was able to coax from the music both its raw potency and its delicate, quasi-fragrant filigree of themes.

Zhang Yimou, one of the foremost film directors on the globe, is new to opera. The premier staging of this production in Florence last spring was his first experience with the medium. His eye for visual imagery, use of saturation-point color and cinematic mastery of dramatic detail created a fresh approach, quite welcome these days when the paucity of ideas in the world of opera is at critical levels.

Zhang Sino-fied the production, with a wushu acrobat here, long-sleeved dancing ladies there, and a fabulous display of embroidered Chinese silk throughout. The lighting, playing against the roof tiles of the Palace of the Heavenly Purity, created alternating moods: reddish glows for execution time, intense yellows for the emperor scenes, and whitish blues to greet the appearances of Princess Turandot.

Producing Turandot in the Forbidden City is not a new idea. The late Maestro Herbert von Karajan cherished a dream of filming his version in a historical Chinese palace, but in the early 1980s the Chinese authorities evidently were not prepared to entertain such a culturally sensitive project. In the late 1990s, they seem to have embraced the idea with at least as much enthusiasm as the European organizers, promoter Michael Ecker's Opera On Original Site (which produced Aida near the pyramids in Luxor in 1987). The Chinese government surely benefited from this Turandot - not least in public relations terms.

For all the magnificence of the imperial buildings, the immense width of the stage created some challenges, particularly during such intimate scenes as the final duet between Turandot and her successful suitor, Calaf. Two mobile pavilions, smaller replicas of the palace broke up the space and acted variously as props, stages or backdrops. But their movement - left and right, back and forth - often appeared more like a succession of carriages at carnival time than a unifying device for a musical performance. Zhang Yimou, in this instance, may have over-indulged in the cinematic possibilities of such a huge space.

The same vastness played havoc with the acoustics. The amplification, needed in any outdoor production, frequently produced unfocused sound and strange musical imbalances. In one of our shows, just as the disguised prince Calaf solved the three riddles, a loud buzz marred the moment in a distinctly unmusical way.

As for the singers, it was a pity the organizers could not have assembled a more homogeneous group of artists. For the nine performances there were three alternating casts. In general, the trio of sopranos singing the role of Turandot were fine, but only one embodied the vocal qualities essential for tackling this most difficult role: the American Sharon Sweet. Her voice possesses both tremendous power and sweetness of expression, the contrasting requisites for the princess's transition from icy cruelty to burning love. Her Turandot surely goes alongside the great ones of the past: Eva Turner, Birgit Nilsson and Montserrat Caballé.

Of the three tenors, one provided a satisfying Calaf: the Russian Sergej Larin. With a dark powerful voice, although a bit short in breadth and top notes, he was able to project the character with force. The Italian Lando Bartolini was correct and the Icelandic Kristjan Johannsson, with loud, unsubtle singing, was simply unacceptable. Given the $15 million production, it is difficult to understand why better alternatives were not engaged. Local Chinese tenors - Liu Wei Wei, among others - could have done a better job.

The secondary role of Liù, a slave girl in love with Calaf, is frequently cast as a vocal weakling when a full lyric soprano is needed to carry the breadth of expression as well as the vocal coloring. In Beijing we got three voices that have never been very substantial: Barbara Hendricks, a singer whose career is peaking; Barbara Frittoli, a musician with a slender instrument, and Angela Maria Blasi, who can be considered merely a competent interpreter.

Two aspects of this production stood out. First, the three ministers of the court, Ping, Pang and Pong (their names appropriately convey commedia dell'arte overtones, the dominant musical form that Puccini challenged in his day). They were depicted as both humane and corrupt characters: one over-indulging in the pleasures of drink, another in the pleasures of the flesh, and the third in the pleasures of money. Zhang Yimou certainly has a sharp perception of bureaucrats around the world. But for all their foibles, the three propel the drama forward. Their extended scene in Act 2, in which they reminisce about their hometowns, reflects the moment when dreams overtake reality and operate as a safety valve for the emotions. The dreams are literally recreated by ethereal dancers in the small pavilions, blessedly stationary at this point in the drama.

Ping, the Great Chancellor, also has some relevant lines: "O China, O China, who now starts and leaps restlessly. How happily you used to sleep, filled with your seventy thousand centuries." The scene marks tranquillity before the great moment of reckoning, when Turandot asks Calaf the riddles.

The second noteworthy element is the absence of common people on the stage. Puccini intended the crowd to represent the great masses, reveling in the executions and equally caught up in the unfolding love story. The throng's movements, in their randomness and chaos, are to reflect lives filled with emotion. They are witnesses, not actors. Here, though, we see the court, the sages, the noblemen, the servants and the executioners on the proscenium, while the common Chinese men and women are relegated to the steps leading up to the temple, perhaps to show how far the masses are from the ruling elite. The gulf that separates the groups is only bridged by love, when and if it flourishes.

This reminded me of a Turandot in concert form that I witnessed in Beijing in 1989. A few days before the show, some mid-level bureaucrats realized that parts of the libretto portray the Chinese people as cruel and blood-thirsty. Indeed they do. In the first scene the chorus sings: "Hurry, hurry, let him die; To the block, let him die." It was decided then that those parts would be censored, and the music and chorus cut away. So we were treated to an abridged reading of the drama. Yet, even in the 1998 production, the poles surmounted by the decapitated heads of failed suitors called for in Act 1, are not seen.

Opera is the most extravagant of arts, and it offers the greatest possible illusions. As we watched this Turandot, not far from the portrait of Chairman Mao at Tiananmen, we marveled at the artistic marriage of the Italian orchestra and chorus, singers from a handful of nationalities, and scores of Chinese artists. Here we saw two visions of the same drama, how they intertwine and separate to provide a vast tapestry of emotions and symbols. For once, it was not a question of being right or wrong, West or East. It was music and light that helped us understand and comprehend fully, for once.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



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