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TURANDOT PROJECT, THE(director/writer/editor: Allan Miller; cinematographer: Tom Hurwitz; cast: Zubin Mehta, Zhang Yimou, Guido Levi, Lando Bartolini (Calaf), Barbara Hendricks (Liu), Sharon Sweet (Liu); Runtime: 87; Zeitgeist Films; 2000-Germany/USA)
“Mainly this is a film about what goes on backstage when you put on an opera, and that in itself was a treat to see.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A thoroughly delightful documentary by Allan Miller (“Small Wonders”) about the putting on of Puccini’s Turandot opera. It’s set in the Ming dynasty, and was first put on in Florence in 1997 then a year later a more lavish production is put on outdoors in the Forbidden City in Bejing. The China production features 900 hand-embroidered costumes, made by 2,000 workers, that are authentic from the Ming period. It also features: colorful pavilions, 300 regular Red Army soldiers used as extras (they are told by their commander not to look at the ballerinas or they will be punished), a tiny girl who puts on an energetic acrobatic performance as she’s transformed from a Red athlete into an artistic dancer, there are scores of drummers to play the same drum rolls heard in ancient times, and since there will be performances for nine straight nights–there will have to be three different lead singers each with two days of rest between their appearances because the roles are so demanding on the voice. As an aside, we are told the soldiers thought the opera music at first sounded like mooing cows, but later on they began to enjoy it even humming some of the tunes.

The sophisticated and genial Bombay born Zubin Mehta is the conductor, and he hires the esteemed, intense, methodical Chinese director Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lantern“) to direct the opera even though he has no experience in that area. But the opera works as does the documentary, which is more about the intricacies of staging it then it is about the opera itself. The film could appeal to opera buffs as well as to those who never saw an opera, as it passionately shows the clashes of culture between the East and the West and differences about artistic ideas among the crew more than it does anything else. This seems to blend in perfectly with the opera being staged, which is also overblown with passion.

“Authenticity” is what makes Zubin jump with rosy delight as his sense of artistic merit is realized by his moves to keep the production as a collaboration that is an international effort. He is most proud that it is being shown for the first time in Beijing, the place the opera was originally set in.

But Zhang Yimou looks sullen throughout, with a constant worry that something will go wrong in this unwieldy production and it will embarrass the Chinese people. There’s a for real clash with the Italian director of opera lighting, Guido Levi, over the intensity of the light, which adds zest to the film. Zhang, always the perfectionist, wants the bright lights to match those of the bright costumes, but only gets grief from the self-important Italian. At one point Zhang gives a coach’s football-like inspirational talk to some crew members saying: that he accepted the project “to win credit for the Chinese,” and expects them to do well. Zubin stays above all the little conflicts going on among the nervous cast members–from those having to learn authentic Chinese Ming gestures from Zhang when they sing, to all the staging problems that crop up including one from the chorus–as Zubin wants them to sing a certain song about blood in a more barbaric way. It was also amusing to watch the overweight diva Sharon Sweet go into a snit about not wearing a tiny headdress because it made her look ugly.

Puccini’s opera, which was unfinished at the time of his death, is about Princess Turandot making her suitors answer three riddles. If not solved, the man is beheaded.

There’s some pieces of opera music played which were very pleasing (such as the aria ‘Nessun Dorma’). Also interesting were the shots contrasting the opera setting in the Ming dynasty with the routine life in modern Beijing and its new hi-risers, and its citizens craving for consumer goods such as cell phones and TV’s as they seem to be embarked on building a totalitarian style materialistic society.

It was chilling to hear a sweet bureaucrat from the Ministry of Culture explain that she is responsible for the wooden buildings of the Forbidden City and that if any damage occurs, she will go to jail. It was troubling not knowing anything about those tailors brought in to make the costumes–Were they slave laborers? Nevertheless, it was amusing to learn of the differences of watching an opera in the West and in China. In the West, Opera is treated as a very serious work and the theater remains quiet during the performance. While in China talking and eating during the performance is the norm, and even prostitutes are allowed to ply their trade.

Mainly this is a film about what goes on backstage when you put on an opera, and that in itself was a treat to see. Though there is a certain ugliness to this film production that can’t entirely be ignored, like the oppressive Chinese government using this as a propaganda vehicle for their country to gain international respect despite their history of human rights violations; it also was frightening to look at the robotic, gung-ho soldiers in action–I couldn’t help comparing them to the Nazi military. Yet I didn’t find these unpleasant incidentals damaging enough to interfere with Zubin’s aim to celebrate the different cultures by putting on this opera in Beijing. Zubin and Miller had a different agenda from either the Communist regime or for that matter Zhang, and if the gap between rivals could be bridged through music that would be of benefit to world peace — all the better.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”