Screened as part of NZIFF 2001
The glorious insanity of Italian grand opera trounces all obstacles in this funny and fascinating behind-the-scenes account of a gigantic international production of Puccini’s Turandot.
The 1926 opera is set in ancient China, and tells of a vengeful princess who refuses to marry any man who can’t answer three riddles, then refuses to marry a man who can. In 1997 conductor Zubin Mehta, concerned that most productions of this bloody tale look like Chinese restaurants, proposed to the Teatro Communale in Florence that they engage Zhang Yimou, director of Raise the Red Lantern, to provide authenticity, tradition and his proven gift for brilliant spectacle. Zhang, a newcomer to western opera, is immediately dismayed to discover the restrictions that singing places on stage action. He does however prove a most zealous and exacting upholder of tradition, insisting for example on authentic costumes, exquisitely embroidered at vast expense by Chinese seamstresses.
A year after its Italian manifestation, negotiations were completed to take authenticity all the way to Beijing’s Forbidden City. The production has to be reconceived beyond recognition to fill this enormous outdoor space, and to match the fifteenth-century setting. The Forbidden City is from the Ming Dynasty, and if the costumes in the production were from any other period, says Zhang, ‘the Chinese would consider it a joke’. Completely new costumes are called for. Zhang drafts a legion of Puccini-hating Red Army soldiers as extras, redesigns the lavish sets and wonders why the Italians have employed a lighting designer who is a master of chiaroscuro to drape his spectacle in shadows…
Meanwhile principal singers (three different casts rotated within the roles) fuss about costumes and refuse to learn formal Chinese theatrical gestures. The German sound designer faces a nightmare of compromises. Chinese stagehands struggle with movable scenery pieces.
Director Allan Miller, a veteran of music documentaries (including From Mao to Mozart), is an unobtrusive omnipresent witness: dropping in on tense conferences conducted in as many as five languages at once, reporting staggering statistics confided by the accounting department, observing diva tantrums at costume fittings, capturing Mehta’s ebullience and Zhang’s polite intransigence. Needless to say, the final production showered the Chinese, if not Puccini, in glory, and Miller’s highly enjoyable film is replete with gorgeous excerpts. — BG