A must-see for opera lovers and a snappy diversion for cinephiles, The Turandot Project is documentarian Allan Miller’s latest peek into the making of a cross-cultural musical lark. Best known for Small Wonders (the basis for Wes Craven’s sappy Music of the Heart) and last year’s PBS doc From Mao to Mozart—Then and Now (which records Isaac Stern’s return to China 20 years after his original visit), Miller trails conductor Zubin Mehta from Florence to Beijing as he stages Puccini’s warhorse with the participation of an honest-to-goodness Chinese citizen, filmmaker Zhang Yimou. Mehta’s bugbear here is “authenticity”—Turandot is set in ancient China—and his choice of Zhang as director clearly tickles his self-congratulatory sense of artistic justice. Zhang, on the other hand, just looks depressed. He’s plainly out of his element until the production moves to Beijing’s Forbidden City, where he tells a group of extras that he accepted the project “to win credit for the Chinese.” He seems to mean it: Zhang takes pains to accurately depict the era in which the opera takes place, from having hundreds of period costumes hand-embroidered to casting 300 Red Army soldiers as warriors to teaching his polyglot cast traditional Chinese opera gestures. The dazzling results certainly seem realistic, and no one is crass enough to mention that the slaved-over verisimilitude only throws the Italianate spectacle of the original work into sharper relief. Who’d want to rain on this parade?
Zhang’s lighting designer, Guido Levi, for one. Pompous and dismissive of a movie director’s involvement in the project, Levi gives Zhang grief from start to finish. These frank, sharply observed scenes of clashing ideals are what give Miller’s film its punch, and the politely contained frustrations of the disparate cast and crew contrast nicely with the overblown emotions in Puccini’s opera. Aside from a hasty performance-highlights montage near the end, The Turandot Project is the next best thing to being backstage.