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The Curse of Turandot
  • Composed by Simon Franglen

Adapted from Puccini’s opera, The Curse of Turandot is a Chinese romantic fantasy about a cursed princess and the prince who tries to lift that curse. Directed by Xiaolong Zheng and starring Xiaotong Guan and Dylan Sprause, the film didn’t get particularly good reviews when it was released in China a few weeks ago; it hasn’t yet been released in the west. While drawing from the narrative of the opera, the film doesn’t feature any of Puccini’s music.

Not for the first time finding himself stepping into some pretty big musical shoes is Simon Franglen, a key part of James Horner’s team for a number of years (and the man who will be assuming the late composer’s mantle for the many Avatar sequels with James Cameron). Franglen has written for various Chinese projects over the last few years but not (as far as I know) any films – instead they have been commissioned works for various ceremonial occasions – so perhaps it isn’t so unusual to see him attached to this film (it does seem that every year or two a big Chinese fantasy movie comes along and hires a western composer among an otherwise-Chinese crew). He himself describes the film as “cursed princesses, heroes, sorcery, fabulous choreographed flying fight scenes” and expressed the joy that gave him as a composer, and he certainly delivered a score befitting such a large canvas.

Simon Franglen

It opens with the fabulous “Entry to the Khan’s Palace”, which wastes no time in giving us a grand statement of the main theme – big, romantic, epic, it certainly promises much. This leads into a more playful passage of music – delightfully light strings and winds providing an overt reminder of the great James Horner, a truly lovely little nod to the late composer. This continues into the opening of “Chasing the Butterfly”, the first few bars of which could easily be from a Horner score; then one of the score’s most attractive features emerges, the use of ethnic Chinese soloists. There are many of these through the score and I’m not competent enough to identify what all the instruments might be (so I won’t bother trying) but the various colourful touches they bring really enhance the experience.

While the opening few minutes are quite light and airy, much of the score is based around quite dramatic action material, and the first of this appears in the dynamic “Attack on Malvia” which introduces the score’s most frequently-recurring motif, heard most often for the horns, and plastered all over the place to really make all the action material stick together in an unusually coherent way. Here is bursts out over the pounding percussion and frantic string runs in thrilling fashion, and while it slightly resembles the opening of Brian Tyler’s theme for Iron Man I’m sure that is entirely coincidental.

An exquisite love theme is introduced in “Master Zhou Returns”, which brims with feeling; while it’s performed by a solo (possibly) erhu in that piece, in the next (“Holding Hands”) it is intertwined with the score’s main theme in a more traditional orchestral setting, with choir added too, and it is no less ravishing. We return to the playful style from earlier in the score in the brief but lovely “Where Have You Been Playing?” before things get more serious in “Training with Boyan”, the six-note action motif being used in a very different way here, subtly underscoring the tense opening to the piece before the action explodes (and when it does, it’s quite like “Hunting the Wolves” from Wolf Totem – that same sort of energetic, clearly-orchestrated feel with little bursts of rhythmic action).

Delicate romance is the order of the day in “Turandot and Calaf Sword Training” with a wordless female vocal the highlight; there is a certain ethereal quality to the orchestration which gives it a magical aura. There’s just a hint of John Barry about the way Franglen combines the strings and horns at one point. Just as it is approaching its conclusion, tragedy enters the music and this continues into the sombre opening of “Turandot Bound”, which turns very dark indeed as it progresses, with some dissonant passages interrupting the strained strings.

The score’s darkest moment so far is then contrasted with its lightest, the terrific “Dance of the Looms” which is sprightly and free-flowing and full of joy. “Boyan and the High Priest” opens with some heavenly choral music before it takes a darker turn, elongated string phrases punctuated by little atmospheric bursts – very sinister-sounding. This feeling is pushed further in “Calaf Joins the Prince”, the score reaching the heights of tragedy. “Hope” does not live up to its name for quite a while, continuing the run of dark fantasy music, but then a couple of minutes in an heroic variant on the action theme unleashes a frenzy of action material. “Blood” combines some pretty intense drama with more bursts of action but it’s just holding something back – a musical caged tiger or something, and just as you think it is going to escape the cage it bounces back – it’s such an enticing piece, leading you on but holding off the payoff for later.

The payoff arrives of course in the subsequent “Saving Calif”, whose stop-start action music is just great – swinging between moments of obvious peril and heroism as the best action/adventure film music always does. The main action motif gets quite the workout in the brief “The Horse Chase” before tragedy returns in “The Answer”, enhanced again by the choir, the main theme twisting into piece of suspenseful drama. “Calaf Captured” opens with some really rich and colourful suspense music – including a little piano device that will be very familiar to fans of Franglen’s former collaborator – before it turns again into first-rate, rollicking action music.

“Boyan’s Deception” is a very dark piece full of growling menace before we come to the score’s biggest and grandest piece of action music, “The Throne Room Battle”. Various variations on the action motif usher in the piece, then there’s a period of suspense before Franglen unleashes grand forces (including, uncommonly in the score, some subtle modern electronic accompaniment) – there’s an heroic burst (you’ll know it when you get to it) which is just about guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of any fan of film music of a certain vintage. While the piece’s epic nature has a climactic feel to it, the score’s not quite done yet: the action comes to an end in “The Final Duel”, which doesn’t reach the heights of its predecessor but still provides some thrills; and then finally the romance returns in the swooning “Call Me Blue Eyes”. The album closes with “Turandot Theme”, a very pleasing concert arrangement.

I know an obvious question that people may want to know is just how much like James Horner the score sounds. Apart from the few instances I mention explicitly in the text above, it doesn’t often sound like music that Horner may have written himself – but there is no question that those who loved the late composer’s later scores (in particular Wolf Totem) will love this as well. One key reason for this is that – unlike a reasonable amount of modern film music – this is not orchestrated keyboard music, it’s pencil-and-paper music written specifically to make use of the various colours and textures available from an orchestra. Throw in the various soloists and you get an enriching musical experience, probably the most satisfying film score album of the year so far.

Rating: **** 1/2

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  1. David Hand (Reply) on Sunday 14 November, 2021 at 17:55

    This sounds really interesting and a very positive review. I will eagerly look forrwad to seeing what Mr.Franglen comes up with for the Avatar franchise.