The Turandot Project

 

Laura Clifford 
Robin Clifford 

When conductor Zubin Mehta decided to stage Puccini's Chinese opera 'Turandot' in Florence, he remembered the Chinese film "Raise the Red Lantern," and suggested getting the film's director.  Zhang Yimou, who had never directed an opera before, and Mehta opened the opera in Florence, then did something even more historic - they brought it to the ancient Forbidden City in Beijing.  Music documentarian Alan Miller ("Small Wonders") captures the backstage drama of this East meets West production in "The Turandot Project."

Laura:
"The Turandot Project" is a traditional, well-crafted documentary of an extraordinary event.  Mehta's vision results in a mini city of Babel where Chinese, Italians, Germans and Americans work together through interpreters to create an authentic take on the Chinese background of a Western opera.

While Yimou learns how to place his singers according to voice and move them to the music's pace, he introduces Chinese period costumes (requiring a labor force of 2000) and props in all the brilliant color of his films.  He brings in Chinese soldiers as extras (who initially compare the Western music as the lowing of a cow!) and a tiny female athlete (transformed in one edit to from a People's acrobat to a spectacularly costumed dancer).  Mehta works with the company to act with more barbarism as they sing for 'Blood! Blood!,' then changes gears to become the opera's combination diplomacy director, publicist and advance man.

In Beijing, we learn from the Executive Deputy Director that she could be jailed should any damage be done to the 1420 palace where the opera will be performed.  The Chinese costume manager learns how to assuage the demands of a trio of divas, as Westerners Sharon Sweet, Giovanna Casolla and Audrey Stottler will rotate in the demanding title role.  Miller treats us to the amazingly different performances of these Turandots along with Calaf's aria performed by Lando Bartolini, Sergej Larin and Kristjan Johannsson and Liu's death scene in triplicate.

While technical problems mount for the outdoor Beijing production, Miller interjects humor.  A Chinese bureaucrat expounds on how this production will give the world a sense of their country, as Miller gives us a brief tour of modern Beijing (which bears no resemblance to what we've seen on stage). Yimou describes the cultural clash of getting a Beijing Opera audience, used to cell phones, snacks and even prostitutes(!), to behave more sedately for it's Western counterpart.

"The Turandot Project" is an engrossing account of a world event where beautiful, glorious music and theater unite us all.

Robin:
In 1997, celebrated documentarian Allan Miller began a chronicle of a cross-cultural event that joined the musical talents of world-renowned conductor Zubin Mehta and the visual acumen of award-winning Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou. These two stalwarts joined forces to produce Puccini's opera "Turandot," first in Florence, Italy, then, in an historic musical event, in the ancient Forbidden City in Beijing in "The Turandot Project."

Pairing these two icons - one of music, the other of film - to produce Puccini's China-based opera is a musical event that has never been accomplished on such a grand scale ever before. Mehta decided to use the visual artistry of Zhang Yimou to stage the ambitious work in Italy, with the secret plan to bring the musical story of a vengeful princess, Turandot, for its final performances in the ancient home of China's emperors. The result is a sumptuous, complex work that has a cast of hundreds and required the efforts of not one, but three, divas who took turns in playing the beautiful, harsh princess in the culminating nine performances in Beijing.

This truly international effort represents the most ambitious staging of the opera ever attempted before. Eastern and western cultures come together as Mehta and Zhang muster the international cast and crew to put on the 1926 Puccini work. Set in ancient China, Turandot is a beautiful princess who refuses to marry unless her suitors can answer her three riddles. Death awaits those who fail. A stranger, Calaf, arrives and is instantly smitten by the princess, passing her test, but she reneges on the deal. Calaf gives her a chance to get out of her bargain, if she guesses his name. Only a servant girl, Liu, knows the prince's true identity and she kills herself rather than betray Calaf. Turandot admits her defeat and confesses her long time love for the foreigner. Her people rejoice in the union.

The Florentine performances followed a routine staging with lots of colorful costumes and sets and played out in a conventional manner. As the troupe rehearsed and prepared for their journey to Beijing, it became obvious, especially to Zhang, that the opera to be performed in the revered Forbidden City needed to be something very special indeed. The production takes on a life of its own as hundreds of Chinese soldiers are recruited to perform as a phalanx of drummers and, literally, thousands of peasants are hired to sew and embroider 900 new costumes for the performance. The daunting task of producing the grand opera is further complicated by the huge array of languages involved - English, Italian, Chinese, German, French and others. Throw into the mix the clash of artistic personalities, a huge budget of $15 million and questionable weather that threatened to stop the performances and you get a sense of the scope of this effort.

The filmed account of Puccini's last opera, by Allan Miller, follows conventional documentary style as the troupe journeys half way around the world to perform the work before enthusiastic Chinese crowds. The cultural clash of East meets West is described in detail as the makers of the play learn that Peking opera is a social event and audiences are inclined to eat, talk and use their cell phones during the performances. Mehta and Zhang also had to cope with three divas, not one, multiplying the impact the Prima Donnas had on the rest of the cast and crew.

The overall effect of Miller's coverage of the international music event is well paced and exciting to watch. The principle players, Mehta and Zhang, are true masters of their respective arts and the dedication they display in putting on such a monumental work is a pleasure to watch. The film culminates with a montage of the performances in the Forbidden City and it forms an exciting conclusion to the chronicle. Theatrical release will be limited, unfortunately, so keep your eyes open for this gem of a document. After life on video and public broadcasting will allow a broader range of audience the chance to see the wonderful work. Whatever way you see it is worthwhile. I give "The Turandot Project" an A.

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