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Iconoclastic Romanian Director Turns Heads in'Turandot'

Dynamic Romanian director Andrei Serban’s production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” which made its acclaimed debut 25 years ago, culminates the 2008-09 season of the Washington National Opera (WNO) in grand style this month. But this production represents something of a homecoming as well as a first for both Serban and WNO General Director Plácido Domingo.

The production was originated by the Royal Opera House as an emergency staging for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and starred Domingo in a title role. It also enlisted the last-minute directorial help of Serban, along with set and costume designer Sally Jacobs.

“It was very, very short notice,” Serban recalled. “I replaced another director who was no longer part of the project, so we had just a few weeks to put things together.”

Talk about pressure. The production would mark the Royal Opera’s debut in the United States — and it would be nothing less than a classic, even though it could have easily been a recipe for disaster.

“That was 25 years ago,” Serban said. “I’ve rarely touched the production since. Jeremy Sutcliffe at the Royal Opera has been handling it all this time.”

In fact, there have been numerous productions of Serban’s “Turandot” at the Royal Opera House and elsewhere around the world, but oddly never in Washington.

“That’s one reason I wanted to do it hands on,” Serban told The Washington Diplomat.

Indeed, not only is this a D.C. debut, it’s the first time in a long time that Serban has done personal, hands-on direction for “Turandot,” which is legendary in the lore of opera history. “It’s a first, an opportunity to work here and this distinguished company and for Domingo,” Serban said.

And to complete the circle, Domingo — who had the lead role of the smitten, forceful, heroic prince Calaf in the Los Angeles production 25 years ago — will be conducting the final production here on June 4.

Since that initial staging of “Turandot” 25 years ago amid daunting circumstances, Serban has solidified his reputation as an iconoclastic, cutting-edge, unpredictable and controversial director who embraces Richard Wagner’s dream of staging “total theater.”

“‘Turandot’ comes close,” said Serban, whose personality was a perfect fit for the story, which was a radical departure for composer Giacomo Puccini, with its fairytale aspects, its grand spectacle, and a highly romantic story also driven by a fascination with death and violence.

“You know, in my country, in many European countries, you’re familiar with these kinds of elements,” said the director, who was born in Bucharest. “It’s in the DNA code. You’ll find that in the Brothers Grimm, in Shakespeare, in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ with Portia and her three suitors, although that’s not so bloody-minded.”

But Puccini’s tale is set far from the traditional European backdrop. Based on a Persian fable, “Turandot” is the name of a beautiful but coldhearted Mandarin princess in ancient China who declares that she will marry the man who can answer three riddles, while beheading the countless suitors who fail. But one of them — the exiled Prince Calaf in disguise — avoids the chopping block when he answers each riddle correctly, though he offers the reluctant Turandot a compromise: He will give up his life if she can discover his name before dawn.

Puccini, the masterful composer of “La Bohème, “Tosca” and “Madama Butterfly” — all hauntingly romantic, and sad staples of opera — never actually finished “Turandot.” He died in 1924, and perhaps that’s why “Turandot” seems like such an anomaly— almost modern in its other-worldliness.

“It’s not the real China,” Serban noted. “It’s a hyper-real idea of Asia, of all those kinds of stories and tales; it’s completely both operatic and theatrical.”

Yet it also illustrates that theater and opera don’t always coexist, Serban added. “In opera, often everything is in the service of the music, and all the last-minute things are usually about that. And often, as a director, you have to deal with artists, singers and performers who think about voice, notes, the singing, not the character so much. That’s not the case here, of course.”

And Serban is all about mixing it up. “I started out doing puppet shows in Romania as a child,” he recalled. “They sent me to study theater, and I once did a very controversial, Kabuki-style production of ‘Julius Caesar,’ which did not go well with the authorities.”

He emigrated after that and studied with Peter Brooks, the English director who practically invented theatrical iconoclasm. For his part, Serban became famous in the 1970s for “Medea” and “Fragments of a Greek Trilogy,” as well as the legendary production of Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard“ featuring Irene Worth and Meryl Streep.

“When I direct operas, it’s the theatricality, the outsize nature of the characters that draw me, merging drama with music ” he explained. “It‘s a merging of all the different aspects that make theater, the performing arts — experiences that have urgency, immediacy.”

Not many directors live in both worlds — Peter Sellars, the American director who for a time tried to create a national theater at the Kennedy Center, comes to mind, as does Franco Zeffirelli, with his forays into film and opera.

Serban, who now teaches at Columbia University, has directed plays and operas — and whatever exists in between — in 39 countries, tackling Shakespeare, Chekhov but also Sam Shepard’s “Mad Dog Blues.”

And he hasn’t stopped exploring, discovering, stretching and cutting that edge — even if “Turandot“ is an overdue revisit. Serban is also working on a production of “King Lear” in Romania, with a cast made up entirely of women. “Think about that,” he said. “You should come. It will be very interesting.”

“Turandot” closes on June 4 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St., NW. Tickets are to 0. For more information, please call (202) 295-2400 or visit www.dc-opera.org.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 8, 2014