Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Superlative: 1998 Gold Medal “Turandot” in Beijing’s Forbidden City

July 28th, 2008

Note from William – With this posting, we have created a new Category of articles on this website.  This will be called “Superlatives” and we will invite various persons to add their own.  My website colleague Tom, conceived the idea of the “Superlatives” and has already alerted us to the most spectacular stage show – Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” in Las Vegas – he has ever seen.

Tom will add to the new category with his own review of Puccini’s “Turandot”, presented a decade ago in the Forbidden City. As we turn our eyes to the Beijing Olympics and celebrate the 150th anniversary of Puccini’s birth, this seems a propitious time for a remembrance of this stellar event.

Tom’s Superlative: Puccini Opera in Beijing

In often highly animated discussions among opera lovers (sometimes with really operatic gestures on our part), we are all wont to note the superlatives in the wonderful, wide world of opera that we’ve seen over all the years – like the best La Boheme, the most sublime Magic Flute, the ultimate Wagner Ring.

All of us can come up almost instantly with the best productions of beloved pieces we’ve enjoyed – the finest casts, the best tenor/soprano/basso, our own Luciano Pavarotti or Maria Callas experience.  In just a year’s interval I’ve seen the best Rosenkavalier ever and the most ghastly Madama Butterfly in 50 ++ years of seeing it.  I’ve reviewed both on this website!!

I’ve screamed bravi, bravi at the top of my (distinctly non-operatic) voice, and have stood on my toes with hands cupped around my Big Mouth to amplify my shouting Boooooo, Boooooo. We’ve all walked out, or have been sorely tempted to do so.

In this spirit, we invite you, our opera-loving readers, to join in and share your own opera superlatives with this website’s readership.

To start off this newly established category of Opera Warhorses features, I offer my candidate for a number of superlatives: Puccini’s beloved Turandot in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. For me it was (1) the most exotic venue I’ve been in for an opera, (2) by far and away the most extravagant production of opera I’ve ever seen, (3) the most I’ve paid for an opera ticket by far, and (4) the farthest I’ve ever traveled to see an opera.

The Italian Girl in Beijing

In March 1920, near the end of his life but at the peak of his stupendous powers, Puccini read the popular Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi’s Turandotte, a subject that had been explored in a totally unsuccessful opera by one of  Puccini’s teachers and by the avant-garde Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni whose opera Turandot took an entirely different tack to the story. Puccini became oriented – wordplay intentional – to his own Turandotte-project.

After Madama Butterfly, the most popular 20th century Italian opera, Turandot had been produced for decades, almost never giving attention to fixing the opera’s geographical location. But there is something about the Forbidden City itself evokes thoughts (at least for me) of Puccini’s exotic Italian fairytale opera about a Princess of Ice.

An often-heard opinion of the opera is that Puccini infused humanity into one of the characters, the slave-girl Liu, but that the other characters were as unreal as those in Gozzi’s fairy tale.

[Below left: Cixi, the Empress Dowager, who ruled from Beijing’s Forbidden City.]

I had been in Beijing at length in 1996 and 1997 and during that time I explored Beijing’s Forbidden City. I was intrigued by the photographs of the Empress Dowager Cixi, who sternly ruled China from her home in the Forbidden City when Puccini was a young composer.

Few would argue that Cixi  (no, it’s not Chicksy, it sounds like Tsuh-she) must have had some influence on Puccini’s concept of this Ice Princess Turandot, but as one learns more about this austere woman, the idea of an Ice Princess controlling the affairs of China – even using terror when its suits her purposes – becomes rather plausible.

The Dragon Lady

The Empress Dowager Cixi, was literally the power behind the Dragon Throne for more than 50 years. She had began her life as a commoner, became the emperor’s concubine, and ultimately  seized total control of the emperor and his court).

If ever there was a Dragon Lady, Cixi surely had to be it – complete with the gold, scorpion tail-like fingernail covers for her three inch plus fingernails.  (Note her photo.)

Cixi died in 1908, followed by a cataclysmic revolution in 1911 that toppled the Ming and Qing (say “Ching”) dynasties, who had ruled from 1368 to 1911 and who had built the Forbidden City.

Cixi’s Legacy

At most times, Cixi resided in the Forbidden City’s innermost sanctum, the Palace of Heavenly Purity, but in later years she spent much time at the stunning Summer Palace, seven miles away, which had been sacked by foreign troops during the Boxer Rebellion. Starting in 1888, she largely restored it. Usurping the vast funds appropriated to build China a navy, she restored the palace. Perhaps as a gesture to the country’s deficiency of warships, she fully restored and embellished a flagship for China – a dazzling marble barge with stained glass windows (it doesn’t float), which she used as a teahouse.

Shortly thereafter in 1895 Japan’s world-class Imperial Navy sank China’s small and underfunded Navy – Japan’s admirals doubtless toasting Cixi!

[Below right: the Forbidden City’s Temple of Supreme Harmony; photograph by Tom.]

I often thought of the opera when exploring the Temple of Supreme Harmony in the very center of the Forbidden City – maybe suggesting Puccini’s supreme harmonies we hear in his Turandot?

The opera’s performance site

I learned that in 1998 Turandot would be staged IN the Forbidden City. How wildly appropriate! I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity.  Thus, what better site in all the world to stage Puccini’s Turandot, not only in the The Forbidden City, but in the inner court of Cixi’s Palace of Heavenly Purity.  Cixi could not have been all bad, an opera lover might argue, as she loved and lavished funds on Chinese Opera performances in the Forbidden City!

The production was staged and presented by the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and Teatro Comunale whose orchestra and chorus was conducted by Zubin Mehta. Having opened the Los Angeles Music Center in 1967, his operatic performances are on a world scale. When interviewed on Beijing TV, Mehta said this would be his superlative in conducting opera anywhere!  They presented the opera eight times to audiences totalling 32,000 (a large number of whom were toting cameras – no flash please!)

[Below left: the Tiananmen Gate of Heavenly Peace, entrance to the Forbidden City; photograph by Tom.]

One gains entrance to the opera’s performance site through Tiananmen Square.  You enter the immense complex through the Gate of Heavenly Peace dominated by Chairman Mao’s portrait, then proceeding due North along the precise North-South axis of the The Forbidden City to the very forbidding Meridian Gate.

Then you go onward through the Gate of Supreme Harmony, and then the Hall of Central (or Middle) Harmony to the Hall of Preserving Harmony. Finally, you enter the inner sanctum’s Inner Court through the Gate of Heavenly Purity, where this production took place.

The Performance

The opera opens with a very imperious Mandarin proclaiming the Law to the people in the Forbidden City – Popolo di Pekino (People of Peking) – to the rollicking laughter and applause of the almost entirely Chinese audience. Mehta grinned broadly, as did most of the orchestra.  (I got to be in the front center section, camera in hand.)

[Below right: A partial view of the “Turandot” stage setting; photograph by Tom.]

The sets completely surrounded us.  After all, the whole Forbidden City was this production’s set, as well as the opera’s designated setting!

The stage was placed against the Inner Court facade of the Palace, with miniature temples which matched the Palace’s decor changing positions for various scenes. In place of a stage curtain, huge red and gold-leafed panels were moved in and out from the sides.

Merely walking to the opera’s performance site was an overwhelmingly moving experience, the palace complex anticipating Turandot herself in her own cozy palace!

Costumed performers were not limited to the stage.  Those participating in this Turandot were in the hundreds and were everywhere. Almost 1500 special constumes were created, with every effort made to place the costumes and makeup in the style of the Ming Dynasty.  The words super, dazzling and extravagant aren’t nearly strong enough to describe the show.

(Up until the Beijing experience, Franco Zeffirelli’s Turandot production for the Met – available in their DVD series – was the most opulent of this opera – one of my five absolute favorites – of which I can’t get enough.)

The excellent cast was entirely Western and nearly all Italian, with Giovanna Casolla in the title role as the formidable Ice Princess.  Barbara Frittoli was a most sympathetic Liu and Sergej Larin striking as Prince Calaf, who solves the three riddles and wins the hand of Turandot.  The ovation for this colossal epic production was the most tumultuous, roaring, excited and exhilarating I have ever witnessed for any opera, anywhere, ever. (How’s that for superlatives!!)

[Below left: the Entrance of Turandot; photograph by Tom.]

The production was ultra-lavishly extravagant.  No expense was spared. This is illustrated with the picture of Turandot’s arrival. A seeming legion of soldiers dressed in Imperial yellow Ming-style armour most effectively slugged drums of that era to announce the opera and at other critical points. When Larin superbly sang the famed Nessun dorma, he almost brought down the house (which we recall is the Palace of Heavenly Purity) to wildly ecstatic cheers (and from me too!)

The majority of the audience were young, well-dressed Chinese most anxious to speak English and to express how thrilled theywere to see this spectacle, hoping to see more.  They urged us to see Chinese Opera in Beijing, giving us some tips on which ones to see (and which ones not) among hundreds of options.

Epilogue for the Dowager

There can be no doubt that in 1908, Empress Dowager Cixi  proceeded to that heavenly Western Paradise of Asia, when she ascended from this mortal, terrestrial planet to dwell among the Gods of the Dragon Throne – in all probability on Cloud Nine (an auspicious number in China).

We know this much for certain. Cixi would have swooned over this production of Turandot in her very own little Palace of Heavenly Purity, and probably was gazing down from her heavenly Cloud Nine as we all watched it too! I know that as I left, I defintely felt like I was on Cloud Nine, vowing to see the production again ASAP!

Chinese Opera in Beijing: Extraordinary Experience and Acquired Taste

[Below left: scene from a Liyuan Theatre Chinese opera performance; postcard handout courtesy of Liyuan Theatre.]

Very much like opera in the West, Chinese opera features elaborate costumes and especially makeup, historical dramas, love stories, lots of swordplay (think of all the Italian operas with swords!), acrobats, dance, mime, solo numbers, choruses, an orchestra (often on stage to the side), highly dramatic gestures, etc. But it does indeed sound different – really different – to our unaccustomed Western ears.

As in most Western opera, Chinese opera singers generally don’t sing like ordinary cabaret crooners. They have a highly specialized musical dimension unique to their opera stage, which the Chinese audiences adores much as we do when hearing Puccini’s music! There are operas the Chinese public sees again and again, just as we trek again and again to weep in Madama Butterfly or rise to our feet in ecstasy as Turandot ends!

But unlike in Western opera houses, the Chinese audience comes and goes, talks, eats, drinks (and how!), listens to ear-phone radios, etc. Like us, they laugh, boo, hiss, jeer. Certain artists get wild applause during the piece, and the opposite. You have to see to believe it.

Don’t start out by just selecting an opera theatre at random from many options. Do get started by a short stint of it at the best of the best, which “old China hands” assure me is the Liyuan Theatre in the Qianmen (say: Chee-yawn-men, meaning front gate) Hotel (174 Yongan Road; telephone 301-6686). This is about 2.2 kilometers south of The Forbidden City. It lasts just an hour and a half, which is plenty for the first time!

[Below right: scene from an Liyuan Theatre Chinese Opera performance; postcard handout, courtesy of Liyuan Theatre.]

The operas have supertitles in English and are very much aimed at Western audiences.  The Liyuan hands out postcard photos, two of which are shown.

You can hear classic Chinese Opera on FM radio at 94.5 and 98.2 on your dial, which also carries wonderful Western classical music!

NB: Don’t miss this: At the Liyuan Theatre, you can get gussied up in Chinese Opera costumes, and they will put on all the makeup if you like. Sans doubt an opera lover’s best photo-op in China!

In recent years, Chinese Opera is becoming much more Westernized with larger orchestras, more classic Western-influenced melodic content (based on clips I’ve seen and some of the Chinese opera touring company’s shows here), but don’t expect Puccini. Chinese audiences greatly enjoy clashing cymbals, gongs, shrieking high-pictched ultra-high soprano dissonant numbers with excruciating sounds never heard in the West. It does, indeed, take some getting used to. But at its best, as with Liyuan Opera, it’s most entertaining and worth the effort, but it distinctly is an acquired taste.

Some Tom’s Tips for Beijing: Side Trips

Whatever you do, don’t miss the marvelous Temple of Heaven (Tiantan) Complex and Park due South (about 2 km) of The Forbidden City. The round, blue, conical Temple itself is nothing short of sensational given where it is and what it signified in old China. You could easily believe you are in the center of the World as did the Chinese of yesteryear.

[Below right: Your Tipster Tom at the Great Wall during the Christmas season; photograph supplied by Tom.]

Whatever else you do, you have to go to see the Wall of China. There is now the Great Wall Expressway going out to Badaling, where the Wall is fully restored. It has all the amenities, including good restaurants and shops, film, brochures, etc. You’ll not be alone. It’s bloody crowded, but by far the best place to see the Wall, with fabulous photo-ops.  (See your Tipster doing a Christmas shot!)

Certainly the most intriguing, photogenic and colorful temple site is the Lama Temple, about two and a half kilometers North of the Forbidden’s City’s North gate. Here you’ll see Buddhists in worship, some in full prostration, incense cauldrons and sticks, great gongs and a 75 foot high status of the Maitreya Buddha, which is magnificently imposing.

Since you’re already there, just a block West and another South is the very elegant Confucius Temple, where you can do your photo in front of his statue, entitling you to say with authority what Confucius said.

Below left: the Lama Temple, photograph by Tom.]

Forget the Ming and Qing tombs unless you have lots of time. But you might enjoy seeing the Olympics Games site and Olympic Village. They have been working on this for years with spectacular results.


Beijing has been very much in the news with the Olympic Games. The world has learned that Beijing is a huge, very modern city (that looks much like L. A.) with all the amenities of a great capital.  By this time, a much-needed new international airport has opened, many new expressways have been built and furious construction has taken place everywhere.

Every major international hotel chain has offerings, some huge (1000+ rooms) like the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel.  But the most noteworthy sites are close to The Forbidden City in the very center of Beijing.

Just two blocks west of The Forbidden City is the major upscale hotel and shopping street -Wangujing Street – which lies on a North-South axis like The Forbidden City.  There such five star hotels as the Grand Hyatt Beijing, the Raffles Beijing Hotel and St. Regis Beijing are located.

In this vicinity of Beijing’s finest hotels, can be found the creme de la creme Palace Hotel – very Western, with excellent restaurants, but pricey (telephone 512.5711) on a small street Jinyu Hutong, just West of Central Wangfujing.  Across the street is the more affordable Peace Hotel (telephone 512-8833) – I’ve enjoyed this one very much, as I have the terrific Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza (telephone 513-3388). From these Wangfujing hotels you can easily walk to The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Mao’s Mausoleum and the great museums.

Near Wangfujing’s South intersection with Beijing’s main East-West throughfare (Dong [east] Chang-an) is the venerable (1900) landmark Beijing Hotel Complex (at #33 Chang-an, telephone 513-7766), featuring superb dining (this is where I often dine in town), a great bar, and excellent shopping.

Across the street on the Northeast corner is a McDonald’s that you might find appealing if you’ve had too many strange mushrooms, sea urchin soup or sauteed octupus. (There’s a KFC at Wangfujing’s North end, and Pizza Hut is all over town.)

Not to be missed on Wangfujing is the extraordinary Beijing Department Store – embroidered silks, cloisonne, stone carvings and other fine handcrafted arts, clothing and table linens. The fabulous Friendship Store at #21 is within walking distance – several easy blocks from the Beijing Hotel going East on Chang An Avenue (which becomes Jianguomennei Avenue). This is like the one by the Star Ferry in Kowloon, but is much better – loaded with the best art China has to sell, but no bargaining here.

As mentioned earlier, virtually all of the major international chains are represented in Beijing, and those with which you have affinity and have established trust can often be an advantageous base of operations. Many of my friends are “old China Hands” and join me in recommending the Holiday Inn Lido, my personal first choice of Beijing Hotels, which is Northeast of the Forbidden City, halfway to the airport by the Airport Expressway.  It’s a large complex with a wide variety of restaurants (including a wonderful German spot, Tex-Mex, Japanese, and traditional Steakhouse).  It has a lovely lobby centered around a grand piano on which young artists play Western classical music (often Chopin) during Happy Hour.  Yes, you can have your favorite scotch-on-the-rocks! There is good transportation. The hotel provides jitneys to run you the 10 to 12 kilmonters into Downtown and also to the airport.

As a caveat, be sure you take a card from your hotel to show your taxi, bus, metro operators or police where you want to go.  Assume no one will speak or read English, like the desk people of the hotels we have recommended and mentioned do.  Also, have the desk write out in Chinese characters where you want to go.

Dining in Beijing

Although there are thousands of Beijing restaurants, few have Western cuisine. The big international hotels – including all mentioned here – do have Western restaurants.  Next to the Lido is the Sichuan Yandianzi Restaurant (437-3561), a charming house serving rich Sichuan cuisine, which is lots of fun with local color. If you want to sample Imperial Chinese cuisine served in luxurious settings, try to famed Fangshan on the beautiful Jade island in Beihai Park near the Forbidden City’s North gate.  (Just go out that gate, turn left a couple of blocks or so, turn right onto the bridge to the island. It’s on the North tip (401-1889). They speak English and you dine in the Hall of Rippling Waves.

Check out the view from the Windows of the World (telephone 500-3335) on the 28th floor of the CITIC Building. (All the cabbies know this one.) The more you are willing to pay, the better the cuisine, view, service and politeness – What a surprise!

[The Tinliguan Imperial Restuarant, located in Cixi’s Summer Place within the Forbidden City; photograph by Tom.]

A wonderful experience is the Tinliguan Imperial Restauarant  (256-2504) where Cixi had opera and concerts (called Listen to the Orioles Hall). English is spoken. The food is the best I’ve been served in China with Dragon Seal chardonnay from a French-Chinese joint venture. The wine arrived in a silver plated ice bucket festooned with sculpted dragons.  My chopsticks were of green jade.

Again the restaurants in the Beijing Hotel are all fine – really good traditional Chinese cuisine in their salubrious Yiyuan Garden Restaurant (513-7766).  (With the Olympic Games, it is possible that some of the telephone numbers have changed.  Get a copy of the abundantly available English language guides in hotels, the Beijing Official Guide and (better) the Beijing Scene, both freebies.

By all means relax and have fun, pop into a Chinese opera and try some authentic Chinese food. It doesn’t even remotely resemble what you have had at home. Egg Foo Yung,  you say? They’ve never heard of it!

Tags: Superlatives