A terrifically engaging portrait of an elephantine cross-cultural endeavor, vet music-docu specialist Allan Miller’s “The Turandot Project” trains a wry yet respectful eye on the 1997-98 production of Puccini’s opera that traveled from Florence to Beijing’s Forbidden City — ruffling multinational feathers as well as fostering goodwill each step of the way. A real-life inspirational comedy that should beguile viewers regardless of their operatic taste (or distaste), docu is a shoo-in for prestige broadcast slots and could ride critical/award kudos to limited theatrical exposure.
Deftly keeping the focus on individuals amid a massive, sometimes rocky collaboration among artists, technicians and governmental orgs, Miller (“From Mao to Mozart,” “Small Wonders”) has stellar “leads” on tap here: Beloved conductor Zubin Mehta, whose idea it was to mount a “more authentic” version of the Ming Dynasty-set 1926 opera, and his chosen stage director, operatically inexperienced People’s Republic film icon Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “Ju Dou,” “To Live”).
Early progress charts the rehearsals for performances in Italy, with exciting glimpses of singers, dancers and designers from both the Western and Chinese pools working their magic. Incredible hand-embroidered costumes — for the entire chorus as well as principals — are labored over to satisfy the exacting Zhang’s desire that this “Turandot” not “look like a Chinese restaurant.”
A year later (and about one-third through docu), elaborate negotiations are completed to remount production within the fabled Imperial City, where its story takes place. Three rotating casts of principals descend upon Beijing, their “artistic temperaments” duly in tow. To populate the enormous outdoor stage space, Zhang drafts a legion of Red Army soldiers (warned by their sergeant of “severe punishment” should they “even look at the ballet girls”), orders all-new costumes (requiring a labor force of 2,000) and redesigns the lavish sets. His obsessing over details isn’t just vainglorious Stroheimery: Zhang, voicing the anxiety of all native contributors here, says, “If something goes wrong, it will be an international joke.” And even foreigners know that the Chinese government seldom enjoys a laugh, especially when it comes to matters of national pride.
Without ever ridiculing or exposing his subjects, Miller gets delightful comic mileage from the palpable cultural chasms between them.
Good-humored Mehta treats every hurdle (even the endless acoustical problems) as child’s play. Feeling far more pressure, Zhang remains scrupulously polite, but grows ever more sardonic in his despair at the unfamiliar loss of absolute creative control. In particular, he’s at loggerheads with lighting designer Guido Levi — a celebrated master whose traditional, subtly atmospheric European approach is diametrically opposed to Zhang’s (and Chinese opera’s) penchant for brilliant, high-color stage illumination.
Tensions escalate when a badly needed public dress rehearsal is rained out. Yet despite everything, the official gala and eight subsequent performances come off without a hitch — enthralling packed Chinese auds as well as Western visitors (though opera crits’ response was lukewarm, a sour note bypassed here). Perhaps more important, for politics if not art’s sake, the Chinese authorities decree this “Turandot” a propagandistic success worthy of the Revolutionary Socialist State. Hail, Comrade Puccini.
Helmer has fun with the opera’s florid melodrama in contrast to the complicated modern logistics. But his love for the medium, and its assembled interpreters, is never in doubt.
There’s some exquisite (albeit briefly excerpted) singing from soloists Lando Bartolini, Sharon Sweet, Barbara Hendricks and others. Production’s dazzling pageantry is well-captured by d.p. Tom Hurwitz, who also always seems to be in the right place to catch amusing or telltale backstage mini-dramas. Given doubtless daunting location-recording circumstances, sound design is exemplary. Allen and co-editor Donald Klocek make interweaving of myriad narrative elements seem effortless in smartly paced, technically sharp package.