`Turandot' to be staged in Forbidden City

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TURANDOT IS going home. For nine glorious nights, Puccini's best- loved opera (at least since the Italia '90 World Cup took "Nessun Dorma" to the top of the charts) will be performed by a cast of thousands in the Forbidden City, the vast imperial compound in the heart of Peking.

Zubin Mehta, who will conduct the extravaganza, said the only difference between this production and the Turandot he conducted last year in Florence would be the lack of specially built sets and, appropriately for the world's most populous nation, rather more extras on the stage.

Mehta is bringing the chorus and orchestra from the Florence Opera House, but about two-thirds of the cast of 1,000 - dancers, members of a children's chorus and extras - will be Chinese.

"Puccini remains Puccini. But it does inspire you," Mehta said, indicating the gold tiled roofs and red walls of the 500-year-old Temple for Worshipping Ancestors, now part of the Working People's Cultural Palace, just east of the popular tourist sites of the imperial grounds.

The temple is built on a huge stone platform that makes a natural outdoor stage. Yesterday, young soldiers rehearsing in green camouflage pants and Turandot T-shirts pounded an urgent, thundering boom on Chinese drums.

Michael Ecker, the producer, said the $15m (pounds 9m) production was unlikely to make a profit, but would probably break even. He has recruited Zhang Yimou, the film director, to direct the opera.

Zhang, known internationally for films such as Story of Qui Ju and the Oscar-nominated Raise the Red Lantern has said he knew nothing about Western opera until he was asked to direct last year's Turandot in Italy.

"At first it was confusing - another heavy-set person on stage and I don't know who's who," he said in one interview. "But then they sang and it hit me how beautiful the human voice is. Exquisite. It was very moving." Zhang said he now stops to listen to opera every time he catches some while flipping channels on television.

Mehta says Zhang has a great sense of theatre. "He knows the musical cues. He knows exactly when a piece of music needs another 50 people brought in."