BANGKOK — Puccini enthusiasts gathered in a packed theater Wednesday night to view the first full-scale production of “Turandot” staged in the country in recent years.
Wednesday night was the first time in its 21 years that Bangkok’s International Festival of Dance & Music brought in Puccini’s opera to stage on Thai soil, to the delight of local art aficionados at the Thailand Cultural Centre.
“Turandot has a special meaning to me. I remember every song, and every song is always full of power,” Thai opera singer Kittinant Chinsamran, 36, said. “It was also the first opera I was ever in.”
Kittinant was a finalist on The Voice Thailand Season 2. In a local production in 2004, Kittinant played the role of the Mandarin.
“It’s not just a cheesy plot to me. Love is intertwined with fighting,” the singer said. “I like seeing her change from cold-hearted to tender-hearted.”
Turandot, written by Giacomo Puccini and premiered in 1926, is an opera set in Ancient China where Prince Calaf attempts to win the hand of icy Princess Turandot by answering her three riddles. Anyone who answers her riddles incorrectly is executed.
At Wednesday night’s rendition by the Ekaterinburg Opera Theater, Italian tenor Paolo Lardinzzone appeared as Prince Calaf, while Russian soprano Zoya Tsererina played Turandot. The relatively small Thailand Cultural Centre stage was lit up with a rotating contraption that was at times used as the palace, before opening up to become the Imperial Court or gardens. Lardinzzone delivered a rousing “Nessun Dorma.”
Dusit Charoonpongsaksi, a professor at the Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts at Thammasat University, says that Turandot’s Eastern setting kept it fresh and ripe for modern adaptation.
“Puccini is known for using eastern themes, as we can see in his ‘Madame Butterfly,’” Dusit said. “So in Turandot we also see the use of Chinese folk songs. Western music reached a brusque, auditory dead end at one point, so he turned to the East.”
One of the recurring Chinese melodies used in the staging is “Mo Li Hua” (Jasmine Flower), sung by a children’s choir during some of Turandot’s appearances. Wednesday’s choir was the Emmanuel Children’s Chorus, as part of a Khlong Toei music outreach program for underprivileged kids.
“It’s traditional, yes, but it’s very amenable to contemporary adaptations. It will never be obsolete,” Dusit said.
American actor Dylan Sprouse will play the role of Prince Calaf in a Chinese adaptation of Turandot, he announced in May 2018. The film does not have a release date yet.
The original opera was not performed in China until the late ‘90s, due to what authorities saw as negative portrayals of China. Embattled Chinese artist Ai Weiwei will make a version inspired by the 2019 Hong Kong protests set to premiere in March 2020 in Rome.
The audience in Bangkok did not seem concerned with elements of exoticization. Squabbles between the characters of the ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong drew soft chuckles from the audience.
(Spoiler) When Calaf finally woos Turandot by kissing her, he does so despite her holding a knife to his throat. After their lips touch, she drops the knife and embraces him. This differs from the original, where he forcefully kisses her.
“This opera is something really special. I love the beautiful decorations,” Galina Shamanova, 55, a Russian expat said before the show started. “I’m seeing lots of Thai people here, and I hope they will like the music too.”
Although “Turandot” was staged for one night only, the festival still has 12 performances of other acts running until Oct. 23.