As cultural exchanges go, the $15 million production of the Italian opera "Turandot" is certainly among the largest projects ever attempted in China.
But size matters less than the fact that this 1926 Western fantasy about ancient China has finally been staged in Beijing's imperial palace, the Forbidden City.
A week of performances were held beneath the stars on the ziggurat-shaped base of the Imperial Temple of Ancestors, a vast 15th-century structure that for most of its history was used to offer sacrifices to fallen emperors.
The Western lead singers, who wore the gold-and-red silk costumes of Ming Dynasty aristocrats, "seemed to form a dream-like bridge between the past and the future, the East and the West," says Shen Lihui, an artist-songwriter who watched the show.
Although Bombay-born Zubin Mehta and the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino's Italian, American, Russian, and Icelandic performers brought the usual Western approach to the production, they were backed up by musicians from the local paramilitary and, most of all, Chinese stage director Zhang Yimou.
Mr. Zhang, whose films have been praised in the West while banned here at home, said in an interview that he tried to inject "Chinese emotional language and sensibilities" into Puccini's drama on ancient China. He hoped to make the current staging of Turandot "reflect the power of Chinese imagination and of its traditional arts."
"Western opera shares a few similarities with traditional Chinese opera, and I have used very stylized techniques from Beijing drama to make 'Turandot' more Chinese," he adds.
"The West has always had fantasies about China, just as the Chinese have had fantasies about the West," says Orville Schell, an expert on Chinese culture at the University of California at Berkeley.
The staging of Turandot in the Forbidden City is both Puccini's dream of the East and Zhang Yimou's vision of Italian opera, and both Chinese and Western viewers are giving it standing ovations.
The story of Turandot has already traveled a centuries-long odyssey from the East to the West, and it almost seems to be coming full circle by being staged in Beijing.
"'Turandot' originated as a Persian fairy tale that gradually made its way to Europe about 300 years ago," says Pay-Uun Hiu, a Dutch music critic who followed the current production from Florence to Beijing. "By staging the opera in Puccini's imagined setting of the Forbidden City, the organizers hope to make the performance one of the cultural mega-events of the end of the century."
Tourists and international corporations hosting business guests have paid as much as $1,500 for tickets.
In Puccini's adaptation, Turandot is an icy Chinese princess who averts marriage by requiring her suitors to answer three riddles. Those who fail are subject to decapitation, and Turandot's palace is decorated with the skulls of her would-be husbands.
When Calaf, a fallen Tatar prince, solves the riddles, Turandot becomes enraged and in turn seeks the secret that will give her the power of life and death over her fianc.
Turandot orders Calaf's Chinese slave to be tortured, but the slave girl kills herself rather than betray her master.
Turandot's ministers lament the cruel reign of the princess, whose executions seem to have stained the entire Chinese capital with blood.
Beijing today tops the world in use of the death penalty, and that scene would undoubtedly have been cut by China's cultural commissars if it appeared in one of Zhang Yimou's films.
But because the libretto is sung in Italian, the Chinese thought police "probably didn't understand the meaning of the scene, and therefore didn't censor it," says a music critic here.
While no Chinese viewers at the Forbidden City performance protested Puccini's stark depiction of Beijing's former imperial rulers, the state-run China Daily blasted the plot's depiction of Chinese royalty.
POLITICAL intrigues, palace coups, and Machiavellian machinations are well documented in official histories of China's imperial rulers, if not their communist successors. Yet the official newspaper said "no Chinese would accept the cruel and cold Princess Turandot in Puccini's opera as being Chinese."
To remedy the flawed portrayal, it added, a local playwright is staging an alternative "Turandot" in which the princess pardons her failed suitors and allows them to leave the palace with their heads intact.
The paper quoted the playwright,Wei Minglun as saying Puccini's opera "is a fairy tale that the Occidentals have fabricated ... without an understanding of Chinese culture."
Although Zhang has similarly been accused of harming China's reputation on the global stage with his sometimes dark portrayals of Chinese society, Beijing's ubiquitous censors apparently have not interfered with his Turandot production.
Mr. Zhang, whose films have taken prizes at Cannes and the Berlin film festival, says he has relished crossing into a new medium, and adds that he is considering directing a 1999 production of Puccini's opera "Madame Butterfly."
"Filmmaking is a relatively new art. Western opera and drama stretch much further back in time, but all three share basic characteristics: Each deals with eternal human themes like life, death, love and hate, and that gave me confidence to direct this opera," he says.