Most expensive opera ever staged opens in Beijing Puccini's last work presented in its setting

September 07, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIJING -- 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 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 as Italy and Israel.

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

About 4,000 people attended the outdoor extravaganza, which took place under clear skies after thunderstorms forced the cancellation of 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 sponsoring a vision of a feudal past it once reviled. Or that the performance outside what is now called the Working People's Cultural Palace was one virtually no Chinese worker could afford. (The top ticket price was $1,250; the nation's annual per capita income is $2,800, according to 1996 statistics.)

The spectators, including dignitaries such as 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 and glittering, silk finery worth $600,000.

The production was put together by the same European company, Opera on Original Site Inc., or OOS, that 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, was the result of a four-year collaboration between OOS and China's Culture Ministry and was the realization of a long-held dream of Mehta's.

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

Pub Date: 9/07/98

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