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BMG Music presents
Turandot in the Forbidden City (1999)

Ice that sets you on fire/ And from your fire is more frosty. White, and dark! If she sets you free, she makes you a slave;/If she accepts youas a slave she will make you a king."
- Turandot (Giovanna Casolla)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: April 21, 2000

Stars: Giovanna Casolla
Other Stars: Sergej Larin
Director: Zhang Yimou, director; Zubin Mehta, cond

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:53m:20s
Release Date: April 13, 1999
UPC: 743216091720
Genre: opera

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

This DVD gives us a live performance of Puccini's 1920 opera Turandot. Based upon stories from the Arabian Nights, Turandot is the story of the original Ice Princess, who seeks to honor an ancestor by leading as many men to their dooms as she can. The process she uses is to require all suitors for her hand to answer three riddles; if they can do so, she will marry them. If not, the penalty is death. A prince by the name of Calaf tries his luck in not only answering the riddles but in melting her heart.

This release is not a standard-issue version of the opera Turandot, however. This production takes the step of putting the opera on stage in the actual setting of the story: the Forbidden City of Beijing, with costumes and sets reflecting the period of the piece, the Ming Dynasty. The stage is huge, resulting in the need for hundreds of dancers garbed in showy but apparently authentic imperial outfits. While Act I does not focus much on these details, Acts II and III do indeed display them to wonderful effect. This production gives us one of the most spectacular opera settings ever seen.

This disc is one of the brightest DVD opera releases thus far. The performance is striking, the costumes and setting are gorgeous and the sound in general is quite good. Mehta's conducting is solid and the cast, while not well known, is certainly competent and effective in their readings. Sergej Larin, as the suitor Calaf, particularly shines with a broad range, tremendous power and believable emoting. The comedic ministers, Ping, Pang and Pong are well cast and effective as well. Giovanna Casolla in the title role seems on occasion to be straining a little; Barbara Frittoli in the secondary part of Liu gives a much smoother reading of an equally difficult part.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frameno - no
Original Aspect Rationono

Image Transfer Review: Truth be told that the aspect ratio here is 1.33:1 (the box erroneously states that it is in 16:9 format). Since this was originally produced for European television, I would guess that this is not the original aspect ratio. However, the framing is generally unobjectionable; the main problem is that the titles of the documentary extend off my 4:3 screen. Subtitles all appear on the screen without any cropping.

Since this is a stage production, the original lighting has a significant effect upon the image. Much of the opera is done under blue lighting, which makes the color accuracy difficult to assess. However, substantial parts of Act II are done in white light, which brings out the dazzling colors of the costumes to great effect. The color tones in these sequences appear to be accurate. No artifacts were observed and the picture is generally clean and sharp throughout. Blacks are rich and solid. Bit rates are generally in the 5-6 Mbps range. This production is truly dazzling in its attention to detail, and the transfer lives up to the source material. The image would have garnered an 'A' but failed to do so because of the issue of aspect ratio

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Italianyes
PCMItalian (audio only)no

Audio Transfer Review: This recording is of a live performance; there are pluses and minuses to such an endeavor. On the positive side, you can often achieve an exceptional performance when an audience is present, as opposed to a studio recording. The down side can be noise: both from the audience (quite minimal here) and, most seriously, the noise of live microphones being moved. Microphone noise crops up numerous times and is fairly distracting on the 2.0 mix; it is not present in the PCM track.

It is quite unfortunate that the PCM track (running time 01:50:11) is not available as the soundtrack of the video; it is an audio-only option (about 100 stills are shown on screen while the PCM track plays). The PCM track is the same as the CD release of this opera. It gives a great deal more depth and sonority to the music and the voices than the DD 2.0 version allows; the DD is much thinner sounding, with the extreme highs and lows emphasized over the middle range. I would rate the 2.0 version as merely "acceptable," especially after comparing it to the much richer PCM track. A word of advice: watch the opera with the 2.0 track before you listen to the PCM audio-only track. You may find it somewhat difficult after experiencing the PCM track.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 35 cues and remote access
Music/Song Access with 35 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Italian, French, German, Chinese and Japanese with remote access
2 Multiple Angles with remote access
Isolated Music Score with remote access
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Snapper
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: Act III, 02m:01s

Extra Extras:
  1. There is also an audio synopsis of the opera that is presented in the six languages of the subtitles. I would recommend that first-time viewers of the opera visit this synopsis before taking on the performance, since some of the motivations and characters can be a little difficult to follow.

  2. The entire audio content of the CD release of this production is included as an extra. The sound is full, rich and pleasing. The ability to play the entire opera from one disc will be appreciated by those without CD changers.
Extras Review: The menu is animated with music, but percussion only: as we learn from the documentary, such drumming was traditionally used to announce the approach of the Emperor. This is a nice touch.

There is a scene access menu option on the main menu, but for some reason, the chapter settings on the video are disabled. One can skip from chapter to chapter, but when you do you never know exactly where you've landed. The PCM stereo mix does have chaptering, which appears to more or less parallel the chapter stops on the video, but it shouldn't have been that difficult to give us numbered chapter breaks in the video performance. Also, when returning to the scene access menu, you always return to the beginning of the act that you were in; you cannot check the title of the aria, etc., on the fly. Finally, there is no obvious way to return to the main menu from the scene selections; trial and error showed that the Title key would bring you back.

The layer change is about 1.5 seconds in duration on my Sony, which normally handles layer changes seamlessly. The change is very badly placed in the middle of a musical phrase just after the beginning of the third act. Obviously, this should occur between acts. On the whole however, this disc is a most welcome addition to the opera lover's library. This offering includes a number of extras not often seen in opera releases, such as a making-of documentary and the ability to choose other angles.

The documentary (28:42 in length) is well done and informative. I would have appreciated knowing more about the relations with the Chinese government and their attitude toward reenacting the Ming Dynasty in this grandiose format, and at the original locations. It certainly seems as if there is a story there, but this aspect is glossed over. Mehta makes a few comments on camera, as does Zhang Yimou, but the documentary is mostly devoted to getting the stage set and handling the technical aspects of the production. Both an English and German soundtrack are provided, with subtitles in French, Italian, Japanese and Chinese. An English subtitle or closed captioning on the documentary would have been welcome.

The Alternate Angles feature is a good idea but not implemented very well. The sequences where this feature is actually available are few and short in each act. The moon icon, which is supposed to appear on screen to signal the occurrence of an alternate camera angle, doesn't. On occasion, when I shifted from angle 1 to angle 2, the screen would, after a few seconds, shift back to the other angle, which was rather irritating. In many cases, the alternate angle is not worth looking at: in the sequence after Liu's death, the alternate angle seems to be from the orchestra pit and all we see is scenery moving, without any sign of the vocalists at all.

The best use of the angle function is during the dance sequences, where you are allowed a choice of a close or medium/long shot. While angle 1 is usually the preferred angle, angle 2 is occasionally rewarding as well. Angle 1 includes a number of brief cuts to Chinese statuary and building ornamentation that is a pleasant visual counterpoint to the stage action.

In any event, it is nice to see this feature finally being used for something besides pornography. I would have liked to have seen more of it, and make the angles more diverse than they are here. But this release makes a decent, albeit tentative, first step.

Extras Grade: A


Final Comments

Even with the noted drawbacks, this disc is highly recommended for fans of opera; the extras contained on this disc also make it particularly accessible as a first opera for the curious to take on. The production is an absolute visual treat and will dazzle even those who dislike opera.


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