BEIJING: A NEW OPERA HOUSE 

The official opening of the National Centre of the Performing Arts

 

 

Like an egg half submerged in broth, the National Centre for Performing Arts in Beijing makes a striking architectural statement, albeit one among many in the increasingly jittery build up to the 2008 Olympic Games.  Designed by French architect, Paul Andreu, responsible for the new terminal at Charles de Gaulle airport and a host of striking architectural landmarks in the Far East (the Oceanus casino in Macao, Oriental Art Center in Shanghai and airport terminals in Manila and Hiroshima) the new arts centre includes three performing spaces (an opera house, concert hall and theatre) approached through a submerged entrance beneath the surrounding lake, which can be discerned through ceiling glass, darkly. Seen from the vantage point of Jingshan (Coal Hill), man made from the excavations of the Forbidden City moat, the squat collosus lists to the west, skewing the ordered progression dynastic temples and imperial residences, of which the vast Forbidden City is but a part. Some find the structure thrilling and post-modern, others regard it as an act of vandalism. Indeed, with the collapse of the roof of Paul Andreu’s new terminal building at Charles de Gaulle in 2004, vociferous protests by Chinese architects resulted in a petition, which engulfed the endeavour in public controversy, further fuelled by the project being over-budget; furthermore, in bone-dry Beijing, seasonally swept by the loess of the Gobi desert, the demands of upkeep for the circular structure would certainly seem at odds with an ethos not renowned for maintenance. Inside the building, the vastness of the dome and the unexpected vistas from the different levels are dramatic, but not forbidding. Visual warmth is provided by expanses of Brazilian mahogany; the glass dome atop a square base pays homage, as Mr Andreu has stated, to the Chinese idea of heaven and earth, while striking floor patterns, marble-paved in traditional patterns from 22 Chinese provinces, are arranged so the grains flow in harmonious lines. 

 

Jiang Zemin, China’s president from 1993-2002, was a fan of western opera, and had a penchant for singing in public – including O sole mio with Pavarotti at a three tenors gig in 2001 -  and it was on his watch that the building was conceived. Much publicity was garnered from the fact that he was the first soloist on the National Centre’s stage on a pre-opening tour, singing snatches from both Beijing and Western opera, but, a politician’s interest in an alien art form does not explain why China, with its own ancient and distinctive civilization, should include, among its current explosion of new building projects, several high profile opera houses. They seem to chime in with China’s desire to be seen as a new superpower, and such edifices have an exclusive cachet to China’s new, upwardly mobile and internationally aware middle-class. In addition to the recent building in Shanghai (also French designed), even Guangzhou, the commercial hive of southern China, which looms large over neighbouring Hong Kong, will boast a new structure created by London architect, Zaha Hadid. 

 

 

Bureaucratic uncertainty has led to a rather hastily assembled first season in Beijing, with the building opening quietly for try-outs last November, a gala concert of Western and Chinese musical celebrities and a launch season last December by the Kirov Opera and Ballet, featuring Borodin’s Prince Igor. Rumour had it that Boris Godunov with its insurrection scene, and the bourgeois concerns of Eugene Onegin were not judged appropriate. There is official pressure to feature Chinese works, but Wang Zhengming, the centre’s deputy director, has admitted that here choice is limited. There is a stronger indigenous ballet repertoire, though many of these are showpieces for the political agenda of the Cultural Revolution. Shanghai Opera, which boasts its own company, has already toured Otello here; but, it is a new production of Turandot which officially marked the opening of the new complex, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of Puccini’s birth. Directed by veteran film-maker Chen Xinyi, a double cast of mostly Chinese soloists, a composite orchestra from Shanghai Opera House and the Puccini Foundation Festival Orchestra, a chorus from Shanghai, under the batons of Chinese and Italian maestri, and most ear-catchingly of all, a new finale following in Alfano and Berio’s footsteps, by young Chinese composer Hao Weiya. Not totally unknown in the West, Hao wrote the music for a theatrical spectacle on the Terracotta Warriors, and a musical on the Mulan story, both of which have toured internationally. In addition, an international seminar was held; a gathering of worthies from the Royal Opera House, Puccini Foundation and Cairo Opera, plus local and international musicians and journalists. Topics ranged from the meaning of Turandot, the problems of its unfinished state at the time of Puccini’s death, and, more generally, Beijing’s aspiration to form its own repertory company. To be sure, during these early days Beijing’s operatic menu seems random, if not bizarre. Next up is Toulouse Opera with Lalo’s Le roi Y’s, and Cairo opera with Aida.

 

Turandots troubled history in China was not much touched upon at the seminar; but, it wasin fact banned for many decades, with Communist leaders disapproving of its unsympathetic and unrealistic portrayal of China. At its Chinese premiere in 1995, a ‘barbaric’ Central Asian setting was judged appropriate for such a misguided view of the Han.  It was rehabilitated most spectacularly with Zhang Zhimou’s production at the Forbidden City in 1998, and as Chinese artists have become more confident and international – with the government’s consent - , the story (of Persian origin, by the way) has been appropriated for traditional Chinese Opera, as well as a ballet and a play.  Tellingly, in this production, Turandot’s cruelty was underplayed, the execution of the Prince of Persia was invisible and the ghosts of the dead suitors did not materialize. Director Chen Xinyi, also doubled Turandot with two dancers, one dressed in black to embody her vengeful nature and evoke the unquiet shade of her abducted ancestor, and another in white to symbolize her gentler side and surrender to love. The opening tableau in Gao Guangjian’s design (resident designer at the centre, who also was responsible for the Forbidden City production), was one of the most spectacular I have ever seen, featuring dual-tiered hydraulic lifts, with the Mandarin and warriors descending as the chorus ascended from below as the inhuman scale of the imperial palace emerged. Unfortunately, no comparable visual coups enlivened the rest of the evening, though the audience with the Emperor was indeed spectacular and the third act set striking, with the Forbidden City moat discerned through a diagonal cracked wall that opened out as Liu ascended to heaven and ultimately let in the blazing light of the final tableau. In short, much of the evening, despite the somewhat distracting dancing doubles and overload of processions, looked reminiscent of the solid productions favoured at the Met and elsewhere in the 50’s and 60’s. Such a vast setting overwhelmed the Mask’s scene, which was slightly cut and featured distracting extras in the intimate reverie Ho una casa in Hunan.

 

At the seminar, a spokesman from the National Arts Academy spoke of how the evening reflected a speech by Chinese Vice-Premier Wen Jiabao, who posited the aspirational societal tenets ' Sincerity, Forgiveness and Love for All: with this in mind it would be foolish to expect Hao Weiya’s new conclusion to question the happy union of Turandot and Calaf as in Berio’s attempt. Alfano’s completion came in for a bashing at the seminar for fudging Turandot and Calaf’s first kiss, and for not rising to the challenge of a grand aria for Turandot, Del primo pianto.  It is worth noting that awareness of Alfano’s first completion, in which the kiss is given a much stronger profile, with Turandot not immediately capitulating, was not remarked upon.  This, of course, had been cut back by Toscanini, as it did not include musical material from Puccini’s sketches, evidence from which were in short supply throughout Hao’s completion.  The kiss, (quieter and more reflective in Hao Waiya than Alfano mark II , accompanied by a snatch of Liu’s Act One aria Signore, ascolta- was the ice-princess supposed to morph into the slave girl here?) still passed by too quickly and unconvincingly, and a totally new version of Del primo pianto, printed in full in the programme, was blandly pentatonic, omitting the (admittedly rather casual) opening phrase that Puccini left in his sketches. Hao Weiya has travelled to Italy, is said to have some command of the language, and was the recipient of a residency from the Puccini foundation, located at the composer’s final home, Torre del Lago, which aided the completion project. Hao stated that ‘my greatest hope is that they can’t tell the difference between Puccini and me’.  Alas, the connecting tissue between the few sketches that were utilized did not reveal Puccini’s harmonic or orchestral style, any more than Berio’s did. By virtue of being at least a close contemporary, Alfano’s flawed attempt, which attempts to weave a symphonic discourse using dramatically appropriate Puccinian musical material still beats both- hands down. Nessun Dorma did not appear in the final moments, with ‘Chinese-ness’, instead,  being reinforced by a loud and spirited rendition of Mo li hua, the famous folk-tune used by Puccini for the ‘official’ side of Princess Turandot, a moment when both music and production teetered into kitsch. In any case, one cannot help thinking that if Puccini himself could not sort out Turandot’s ultimate riddle, why should others, lining up to be victims like Turandot’s hapless suitors? Watch Liu die, and go home. 

 

At opening night (May 21st) Dai Yuqiang’s Calaf soared out loud and clear, though the stentorian top C’s tended to sharpness. Deficient in nuance, perhaps, he did generate sparks with veteran Giovanna Casolla’s icy Turandot, whose diction was clear and who could fine down her tone excitingly for dramatic and melting effect. Yao Hong’s Liu was quavery and ill-focused in the first act though was more compelling in her death scene; for some reason there was some sort of stampede in the stalls amongst the invited cadres during Signore Ascolta, which didn’t help. Tian Haojiang was a powerful, dignified and focused Timur, and Zhang Feng as Ping led the masks characterfully and made much of his remorse at Liu’s death. At a later performance (May 25th) Su Xiuwei mustered attractive tone for Turandot, but did not have the temperament or the diction to characterize her, and Nicola Martinucci’s Calaf revealed flashes of his former tenorial glory. Ma Mei’s Liu was more mettlesome than exquisite. Lu Jia, a Chinese conductor based in Rome, led an animated, fast-paced account at the premiere that skimmed over the many harmonic and orchestral piquancies that make Turandot such a showpiece. Giuseppe Acquaviva’s conducting (May 25th) was phlegmatic indeed. The orchestral playing was stodgy, unable to do justice to Puccini’s Ravel and Stravinsky inspired glitz.  As in many new houses, the acoustic has teething troubles. From the centre stalls, the orchestra is over-blended; but, more troublingly, from the balcony it sounds as if it is being remixed and relayed from somewhere else – an impression reinforced by an over-amplified offstage band. The sound from the stage was more plausible, with the chorus sounding focused and the inner parts registering clearly. Visually, one got more of the grandeur of the stage picture from the cheaper seats. From the stalls, protruding semi-circular pillars at the sides of a not-too-wide stage reduced the view, even when only slightly off-centre. Mobile phone signals were blocked (other houses take note) the moment the music began, and for the many who attempted photography with mobiles and cameras, instead of being wrestled mid-show by scary attendants, as is customary here, they were mercilessly outed by laser lights, loosed on the offenders like will’o’the wisps in the auditorium. 

Though Hao Weiya’s and Chen Xinyi’s view of Puccini’s swansong might not find favour in the West, this was a brave and imaginative calling card for a new house that aspires to its own repertory company and has high hopes of building its own tradition.

 

© JULIAN GRANT 2008. Published in OPERA magazine, June 2008