A Great Wall Comes Down


After years of hope and months of hype, the cultural event of the season here opened Saturday as "Turandot" played for the first time in the place where Puccini's beloved opera is set: within the walls of China's famed Forbidden City.

Where Ming Dynasty emperors once sacrificed to their ancestors, a cast of hundreds draped in sumptuous hand-sewn costumes sang, glided and paraded their way into history in the $15-million production--the most expensive opera ever staged, according to organizers. Saturday's premiere, conducted by maestro Zubin Mehta and directed by filmmaker Zhang Yimou, had been highly anticipated for weeks, not just in the Chinese capital but by ticket holders who flew in from as far away as Italy and Israel just to witness it.

"It's not an opera. It's not a movie. It's not a play," said Zhang Yalun, a baritone in the supporting cast. "It's a show--a Big Event."

About 4,000 people attended the outdoor extravaganza, which took place under clear skies despite the thunderstorms that canceled rehearsals earlier in the week. The enraptured audience watched, heard and finally gave a standing ovation to Puccini's last opera, a reworking of a legend of a Chinese ice princess and the man who wins her love.

Never mind the irony of communist China willingly hosting an Orientalist vision of a feudal past it once reviled. Or that the performance in the courtyard of what is now called the Working People's Cultural Palace was one virtually no Chinese worker could afford. (The top ticket price is $1,250; the nation's annual per capita income is $2,800, according to 1996 statistics.)

And forget the moments when modern and ancient China clashed as the trill of mobile phones in the audience competed with the trills of singers onstage.

The spectators, including dignitaries like Leah Rabin, widow of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, hardly seemed to notice such nuances under the full moon and the spell woven by Puccini's soaring score, on top of the glittering, embroidered silk finery worth $600,000.

"The setting is phenomenal. It's just fabulous," said Shelly Nascimento, 43, who flew out from Toronto on Friday, saw the opera Saturday and left for Tokyo early Sunday. "I feel like I'm back in that era."

Which is the point of the production, put together by the same European company, Opera on Original Site Inc. (OOS), that first brought "Aida" to the Temple of Luxor in Egypt in 1987.

The Forbidden City version of "Turandot," an expansion of a production seen in Florence last year, is the result of a four-year collaboration between OOS and China's Culture of Ministry and the realization of a long-held dream of Mehta's. The opera is scheduled to run through Sunday and features three rotating casts of principal performers, backed by the orchestra and chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.

Although $150 tickets--the cheapest available--have sold out through the run, the organizers have had trouble unloading higher-priced seats (maximum capacity per performance is 4,200). At the premiere, seats along the flanks of the front section stood empty.

One ticket seller estimated that only 50% of tickets have been bought for the eight performances; organizers reportedly put the figure at 80%.

For revenue, the producers have had to rely on pricey corporate sponsorships by companies such as Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley, which were solicited to buy tables at the gala 15-course banquets following each performance at $1,500 a head, which includes admission to the opera. Video and recording rights were sold to BMG Classics for an undisclosed sum.

Interest in the production has been strongest out of Asia and Europe, OOS chief Michael Ecker said recently.

Benjamin and Shula Machnes, who own a citrus farm outside Tel Aviv, jumped at the chance to attend when Mehta mentioned the project at a celebration of Israel's 50th anniversary a few months ago.

"As soon as we heard of it, we booked tickets," said Shula Machnes, 68.

Machnes was enthralled by the pageantry crafted by director Zhang, a filmmaker whose Oscar-nominated movies include "Ju Dou" and "Raise the Red Lantern," and who received the loudest applause at the end of the evening.

Ignorant of the conventions of Western opera, Zhang has said that his main aim was to lend authenticity to the portrayal of imperial Chinese culture, through drummers beating on ancient drums to announce the beginning of each act, elegant dancers with stylized makeup and flowing sleeves, intricate headdresses out of Peking Opera and two ancient-looking pavilions built to slide around the stage and match the temple behind them, with their curling golden roofs and hand-painted eaves.

During the opera's climax, more than 300 performers, including many Chinese extras--even People's Liberation Army soldiers--crowded on the stone steps and around the intricately carved banisters and railings that make up the stage.

Visually, Machnes was less impressed with the amply proportioned soprano in the title role, American Sharon Sweet.

"I'm a bit disappointed in the looks of Turandot, because Chinese women are more delicate," Machnes said. Sweet was, well, "so Wagner."

But "we are enjoying ourselves immensely," Machnes added.

With ticket prices beyond the reach of most Chinese, there is no doubt that the production, like Puccini's treatment of the Turandot tale, is largely a Western creation for a Western audience. But two nights, one a dress rehearsal last Thursday and the other an upcoming regular performance Thursday, have been reserved for local residents at lower prices, about 90% off the regular rate.

Xue Liping, a music student at the Beijing Central Conservatory, shelled out $25 for his ticket to the dress rehearsal Thursday and sneaked a better seat near the front. Xue, 24, was dazzled by the pomp, thrilled with the attention to period detail but underwhelmed by the Chinese response to Puccini.

"A lot of people came because of Zhang Yimou. They don't understand the music," he said. "But for this, you go for the spectacle, not the music."

A budding singer and connoisseur of Western opera, Xue found the vocal performances, amplified to fill the outdoor venue, lacking. Most likely, he speculated, the performers for the dress rehearsal were the "third string" among the three rotating casts--a comment, whether true or not, that inadvertently touched on some of the intrigue and drama that has swirled behind the scenes of "Turandot."

Among the other singers mixed and matched for each performance are Lando Bartolini, Kristjan Johansson and Segej Larin (as Turandot's love, Prince Calaf), Barbara Hendricks, Angela Maria Blasi and Barbara Fritolli (as Liu), and Audrey Stottler and Giovanna Casolla as additional Turandots. Sources say the multiple casting spawned a rivalry among some of the vocalists, partly over who got to be featured on the "Turandot" video. Complaints of disorganization have surfaced, with singers being handed the performance schedule at the last minute, according to one insider.

Chinese red tape has frustrated publicists. So has the early-September weather, chosen specifically for its good odds of being dry but which wound up pouring rain on a few rehearsals, washing out Wednesday's press preview.

Organizers also huff that a local acting troupe has been using their logo for its own competing production of "Turandot," a Chinese version in the Sichuan dialect written by well-known dramatist Wei Minglun. In a telephone interview, Wei said his show had the blessing of Chinese culture officials, cost a paltry $121,000 to produce and was actually first performed in Italy as early as 1993 and 1994.

"At that time, Zhang Yimou didn't know what 'Turandot' was," he said.

Fortunately, the opening-night audience Saturday of the big-scale "Turandot" remained blissfully unaware of the machinations backstage, content instead to revel in the moment. Many turned it into a major occasion, decking themselves out in tuxedos and designer dresses made in Hong Kong expressly for the event.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance," said Nascimento from Toronto, sipping an $18 glass of champagne in between acts.

Nascimento paid $1,700 to attend the opera and the banquet, but "I figure you only live once."

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