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Seen and Heard International Opera Review


G. Puccini, Turandot at the Finnish National Opera, April 16 2005 (GF)

Conductor: Muhai Tang
Director: Sonja Frisell
Sets and Costumes: on an original idea of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
Lighting designer: Joan Sullivan-Genthe

Turandot – Baysa Daschnyam
Calaf – Mika Pohjonen
Liù – Ritva-Liisa Korhonen
Ping – Sauli Tiilikainen
Pang – Aki Alamikkotervo
Pong – Ari Grönthal
Timur – Ilkka Vihavainen
Altoum – Pertti Mäkelä
A Mandarin – Jarmo Ojala
The Prince of Persia – Juha Lehmus
The Executioner – Sami Vartiainen


This production of Turandot was first staged in Seville and then in Trieste, Cagliari, Santander and Cordoba before it reached Helsinki in January 2004. When it was revived last Saturday it was a fitting tribute to Swedish-Canadian director Sonja Frisell that conductor Muhai Tang dragged her in front of the audience for a personal curtain call. Of the many Turandots I have seen, live or on TV, this is the tautest, most gripping and most many-sided version. The combination of Frisell’s direction and Ponnelle’s sets and costumes is the backbone of the performance – having worked together for many years, not least at La Scala, they have functioned as a radar pair, which is very obvious in Helsinki. I really can’t imagine a better realization of Puccini’s last and possibly greatest masterpiece. It was here performed in the “standard version” with Alfano’s completion of the last act. It is by now part and parcel of the opera and although it has been criticized ever since it was first heard – “Puccini with water” – it fairly well handles Puccini’s posthumous sketches. I can’t say that Berio’s version, which I saw and heard in a decidedly ridiculous production in Berlin a year and a half ago, comes any closer to the mark, quite the contrary.

In the first act the stage is dominated by a giant head centre-stage, crowned by a pagoda-like tiara with stairs – or rather grand stands – on both sides. In the second act we see what is actually the reverse side of this head, which is now the Emperor’s palace in Peking. In the third act we are back to the first act setting but when the icy princess has finally thawed and fallen in love with Calaf the stage rotates once more to the Emperor’s palace where the Emperor gives his blessing to the no longer unknown prince Calaf. Turandot is indeed grand opera, to rank in the same category as Aïda, and Sonja Frisell treats it likewise. The crowd scenes are impressively handled, showing that the people can easily be manipulated but also showing the power of the people. The chorus is in this opera a protagonist in the same way as the commenting chorus in a Greek drama, and also a dramatic force. This evening the FNO Chorus had a field day with a mighty homogenous sound – some wobbly male voices apart – and tremendous power. There were many interesting features belonging in the grand opera tradition with processions, ballet, architectonical groupings and the choreography and virtuosity of the executioner’s handling of his sword was almost worth the price of the ticket alone.

The comical elements – at least partly; they are also scaring henchmen to Turandot – Ping, Pang and Pong were acted and sung with great authority and fine feeling for both the light and the dark sides of their characters by Sauli Tiilikainen, Aki Alamikkotervo and Ari Grönthal, who were backed up by three orange coloured miming artists who created funny doodles in the margin without being so obtrusive as to divert interest from the main proceedings.

The FNO Orchestra was on top of their considerable form and Muhai Tang, who has sometimes been criticized for slackness, led his forces with unstinting precision, from the first heavy, ominous chords and all through the opera. Maybe there was after all a slackening towards the end but that may be just as much Alfano’s fault.

To me this opera is not so much a work about individual human beings but rather about archetypes, which is also mirrored in Turandot’s riddles. Calaf doesn’t fall in love with a woman, he loves the image, the idea of a woman. And Turandot’s attitude towards humans is clearly illustrated by the fact that she has already had 26 suitors beheaded “off stage” before the Prince of Persia loses his, triumphantly exhibited to the audience by the executioner.

‘Il suo nome è Amor’ (‘His name is Love’), Turandot announces in the final scene, but again it is the abstraction “Love”. Real, human “love” is shown only by Liù, the slave girl who is taking care of Timur, Calaf’s father, because she is in love with Calaf. And this love is so strong and unselfish that she sacrifices her own life to save his. She is also the character that Puccini was obviously in love with. Some commentators say that he was really in love with the soprano voice, as witnessed by the large number of wonderful soprano arias to be found in all of his operas, but I still think that in writing Liù’s two arias he surpassed himself. In this performance they were sung with great affection, beauty and warmth by Ritva-Liisa Korhonen, and there were certainly more than the odd furtive tear that rolled down cheeks in the audience during her singing. She has indeed a fantastic voice, with absolutely steady high notes and the power worthy of a Turandot. Old Timur, who must also rank among the humans, was sung by Ilkka Vihavainen with such beauty of tone and identification that one wished the part had been much bigger. It is indeed a marvel how Finland continues to produce one great bass after the other.

But of course it was the leading couple who more or less stole the show. Turandot may be the smallest main soprano part in all opera, but the demands on the voice are almost super human. The Mongolian soprano Baysa Daschnyam flung her big voice fearlessly up in the stratosphere with such tremendous power that the eardrums of the people in the first rows of the stalls were clearly at danger. She had none of that wobble that so often afflicts dramatic sopranos these days, she showed great sensitivity to nuances (yes, there are several notes that are not supposed to be sung fortissimo) and there was also a deal of warmth in voice that quite early showed her heart not to be made of ice alone. Marvellous singing!

Mika Pohjonen’s Calaf was a worthy partner, his slightly baritonal voice being an ideal instrument for the unknown prince. There is something of Mario Del Monaco in his timbre but without the older tenor’s tendency to bawl. ‘Nessun dorma’ at the beginning of Act III (the one tenor aria that everyone knows nowadays) was impressive and brought down an enthusiastic round of applause, drowning the orchestra.

This production, which every visitor to Helsinki should see, shows several things: it is still possible to stage an opera in the original times and settings and give it some universal applicability so that it speaks to present day listeners; there are fantastic singers around, not least in Helsinki (I would love to hear this cast in a recording) and it definitely shows the generally high standards, in all departments, of the Finnish National Opera. Bravi!

Göran Forsling

Picture © Heikki Tuuli , Finnish National Opera



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)