5.0 out of 5 stars
Turandot comes home to Beijing, Jan. 26 2001
Seventy-two years after its premiere in Milan, Puccini's Turandot finally "came home" to Beijing.
Never mind that the Turandot story was not even of Chinese origin, being based on a play by an 18th-century Italian dramatist who in turn probably got the idea from The Arabian Nights. And never mind that Puccini had never been to China, and knew little of Chinese history and culture. However imperfectly it was glimpsed, China was the inspiration for the opera, and China remains the source of much of its continuing fascination for the world.
For too many decades, Turandot was seen solely through western eyes, with scant respect for authenticity, its "Chineseness" no more than a veneer. Even a director such as Franco Zeffirelli could commit the unthinkable blunder (in his 1987 production at New York's Metropolitan Opera, also available on Video/DVD) of presenting the Emperor, the Son of Heaven, dressed completely in black! It was left to the great Chinese director Zhang Yimou to redress the balance and turn Turandot into a genuine and equal meeting of East and West, rather than a travesty of the East by the West. His production came close to a vision of this opera that the composer himself might have dreamed of, had he been all-seeing and all-knowing about China, whilst retaining the genius and conventions of Italian opera.
"Opera on original sites" (which started with Aida in Luxor some years ago) is a concept that has produced variable results with different operas. For all its extravagance, there is no denying the unique magic that the right location under the right conditions can conjure up for the audience. Though it is not one of the most majestic halls in the Forbidden City (which would in fact have dwarfed the production), the sight of Taimiao (Supreme Ancestral Temple) in the Beijing twilight as a backdrop for Turandot was perfectly imposing and inspiring. To this were added two moveable pavilions which Zhang used to brilliant effect, from being an integral part of the scene (from which, for example, the Wise Men read out the answers to the riddles), to a dreamlike evocation of the musical imagery (as when Ping, the Minister, nostalgically recalled his home in Honan, with its lovely blue pond surrounded by bamboo).
The production was a visual feast of unparalleled splendour from beginning to end, fully matching the splendour and passion of Puccini's score. The costumes set a standard in opulence and authenticity probably never equalled, let alone surpassed, in the annals of opera. With a cinematic director's eye, Zhang filled the 82-metre-wide stage with a huge cast of extras, from ministers and mandarins to dancers and soldiers, which lent flesh and blood to Puccini's "insubstantial pageant". Their beautifully choreographed movements, with elements from Chinese opera, dance, and even martial arts, were so skilfully blended in as to become an integral part of the music drama. For all its authentic appeal, a major drawback of the historic site as a "stage" was that its separate tiers leading up to the terrace outside the temple seriously constrained the movements of the crowd, especially in the riotous First Act.
If one talks much more about the production than the musical performance, it is only because it is for the former rather than the latter that the Beijing Turandot will long be remembered. Good as they were, the principals - Giovanni Casolla as Turandot, Sergej Larin as Calaf and Barbara Frittoli as Liu - were far outshone by the best of other recorded versions (particularly Nilsson, Corelli and Scotto, and Sutherland, Pavarotti and Caballe). Conductor Zubin Mehta presided over the orchestra and chorus with masterly control, and an equal sensitivity to the exotic colours of the score and its pacing and dramatic impact.
Like one of your readers, I too was at the performance in Beijing in 1998, but unlike him, I do not think it either realistic or fair to expect the video to duplicate that experience. Considering the conditions under which the production was shot (outdoor and at night), the visual quality is acceptable. The audio quality is variable, both at the live performance and on DVD. In this more than any other Puccini opera, the chorus plays a dramatically and musically pivotal role, but here their rousing and at times barbaric voice is often blunted by imbalances in the sound system.
But then, a barbaric China was not what this production was about. This was, above all, a gloriously and lovingly nostalgic Turandot. It was almost as if, after half a century of proletarian rule, Zhang Yimou was intent on recapturing, if only for a fleeting moment, all the pomp and splendour of a bygone civilisation which once thrived on this very spot, and whose heritage the "cultural revolution" almost destroyed. In this context, the three Ministers' valediction resounds with a new, touching significance: "Addio, razza! Addio, stirpe divina!" -- "Farewell, race of men! Farewell, divine heritage!"