Ai Weiwei makes operatic debut with ’Turandot’ in Rome

Ai Weiwei makes operatic debut with ’Turandot’ in Rome

Ai Weiwei makes operatic debut with ’Turandot’ in Rome

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei makes his directorial operatic debut in Rome on March 21 with a new reading of Giacomo Puccini’s final, unfinished opera, “Turandot.”

And with a storyline seeping with bloodshed and despotism, a new geopolitical focus and Ukrainian conductor Oksana Lyniv in the pit, the new production -- originally meant to have premiered in 2020, but delayed because of the pandemic -- comes exactly on time.

From the ominous opening five notes, the audience is plunged into an uncertain, violent world and 64-year-old Ai never lets up the pressure.

The production, which opens at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, is a fitting project for an artist known for his installations, sculpture and photography that denounce authority and champion human rights and freedom of expression.

The presence of rising star Lyniv, who became the first woman ever to conduct at Germany’s prestigious Bayreuth festival last year, further ramps up the immediacy of the production in face of the outbreak of war in Europe.

Puccini’s dark opera centers around cold, vengeful Princess Turandot who kills her suitors if they fail to correctly answer three riddles for her hand.

Refugees, a sacrificial victim and a morally compromised chorus round out the cast -- all fodder for Ai, who uses unrelenting video images to intensify the sense of state-sponsored menace pervading the opera.

Behind a set resembling the ruins of a futuristic city, Ai projects distressing images from recent news events, whether masked hospital workers in protective gear, refugees fording rivers, riot police confronting Hong Kong protesters or migrants encircled by chain link fences.

“We are lost!” sings the chorus in the third act, as images of billy clubs, chokeholds and tear gas fill the screens.
Lyniv, 44, said Ai’s strong visual symbolism perfectly fit the intentions of Puccini.

“From the first bars, you feel this apocalyptic character in the air, of what will happen,” said Lyniv of the opera which was left unfinished with Puccini’s death in 1924.