Documentarian Allan Miller's backstage look at the first production of Giacomo Puccini's 1926 Chinese-themed opera actually produced in China in Beijing's Forbidden City, no less is a generally impressive and visually spectacular piece of work, though the format allows for few surprises. The genesis of the production was a 1997 Italian collaboration between conductor Zubin Mehta and renowned Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who had never before staged an opera and was, we subsequently learn, brought in solely for marquee value. Moving a fairly conventional stage production to the ancient Forbidden City proved far more problematic and expensive than Mehta, Zhang or their backers anticipated. And Miller shows, quite artfully, how just about everyone, from the lowliest technicians to the principal singers, was forced to adapt to wildly unfamiliar surroundings. Miller, whose previous foray into East-meets-West territory was the Oscar-winning FROM MAO TO MOZART ISAAC STERN IN CHINA, knows this territory cold, both musically and culturally. Unfortunately, on some levels, so does everyone else. In fact, much of the backstage politicking and nuts-and-bolts production footage is indistinguishable from the sort of thing you've seen in countless rock-tour films. Several amusing moments are provided by lighting director Guido Levi, a sardonic fellow who bears an unsettling resemblance to Don Novello's Saturday Night Live character, Father Guido Sarducci, and is openly contemptuous of Zhang's aesthetic sense. But the film's best and most telling line belongs to the low-level Chinese bureaucrat who confides that if the opera company as much as hammers an unauthorized nail, she'll be put in jail. Fortunately, the music is quite seraphically lovely throughout (you don't have to be a Puccini buff, although it probably helps) and by the film and the opera's end, as Miller cuts back and forth between three different performances featuring the troupe's three separate casts while what looks like the world's largest chorus line spreads out across the humongous backdrop of the Forbidden City set in gorgeous authentic period costumes, one conclusion is inescapable. You have really seen something you don't see every day.
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- Released: 2001
- Rating: NR
- Review: Documentarian Allan Miller's backstage look at the first production of Giacomo Puccini's 1926 Chinese-themed opera actually produced in China in Beijing's Forbidden City, no less is a generally impressive and visually spectacular piece of wor… (more)