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Seen and Heard International Opera Review

 

Giacomo PUCCINI: Turandot at Dalhalla, Sweden 5th August, 2005 (GF)

 

 

Guest Performance from the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow

Conductor and Music Director: Alexander Vedernikov

Director: Francesca Zambello

Designer: Georgy Tsypin

Costumes: Tatyana Noginova

Lighting: Rick Fisher

Choreographer: Andrei Melanin

Chorus Director: Alessandro Pagliazzi

 

 

The Emperor Altoum: Alexander Arkhipov (tenor)

The Princess Turandot, his Daughter: Anna Shafajinskaya (soprano)

Timur, deposed king of Tartary: Vadim Lynkovsky (bass)

Calaf, his son: Oleg Kulko (tenor)

Liù, the slave girl of Timur: Lolitta Semenina (soprano)

Ping: Nikolai Kazansky (baritone)

Pang: Vyacheslav Voynarovsky (tenor)

Pong: Marat Galiakhmetov (tenor)

Mandarin: Yuri Nechaev (baritone)

The Prince of Persia: Vladimir Danilov

Chorus and Orchestra from the Bolshoi Theatre

Swedish Children’s Choir/Linda Jansson

 

 

 

The outdoor arena Dalhalla – the name being a combination of Dalarna, or Dalecarlia, the province in central Sweden where it is located, and Wagner’s Valhalla – is a quite remarkable place. It is a closed down lime-stone quarry in the deep forests a few kilometres north of Lake Siljan, about 300 kilometres from Stockholm. In 1991 singer and radio producer Margareta Dellefors discovered its potentials as a possible festival arena, having tested the acoustics and being impressed by the sheer size and exterior: oval shaped, 400 metres long, 175 metres wide and 60 metres deep, vertical rockwalls with terraces, at the bottom a lake with blue-green water, casting a special spell over the quarry. Around the arena dark green spruce and pine-trees, lend an atmosphere of ancient Nordic trolls. After some years of hectic fund-raising and construction work, Dalhalla was opened on July 23rd 1994, when legendary Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson fired the starting shot. Since then a lot of improvements have been made, step-by-step. Today the arena seats an audience of around 4000 visitors in the quite steep amphitheatre; so steep that it allows everyone to see the action on the stage, placed in the lake, which surrounds it on three sides. The stage is covered by a gigantic pentagon-shaped roof. The activities at Dalhalla cover most musical genres: classical, folk music, choral music, rock, opera. There have been some internal conflicts concerning the aim and direction of these activities, and especially Margareta Dellefors has pleaded for more opera, but in the last resort financial considerations have to have priority and opera is seldom a box-office success. The concert season runs from the beginning of June until the beginning of September, when there is a Grande Finale with spectacular fireworks. The opera festival is held in August, but even then the performances have to start late in the evening, due to the light Nordic summer evenings which make it impossible to play operas in June and July, since it never gets really dark then, not even at midnight.

 

Visiting Dalhalla is a very special experience indeed and its share of international visitors is sometimes high. Some years ago, when I heard José Cura and the Philharmonia Orchestra at Dalhalla, I happened to sit next to an elderly gentleman who spoke Swedish with a heavy American accent. When we started talking, it turned out that he had been born close to Dalhalla but emigrated to the US in his youth and after that he had never returned to Sweden, but now he finally had, since he wanted to, as he put it, “see my arena”. It was his father no less who started the lime-stone industry there, and without him there wouldn’t have been a Dalhalla at all.

 

A visit there, it should be mentioned, also requires some preparation for the visitor and some knowledge about what Swedish summers can sometimes be like. First of all, having reached the parking lot, there is a 20-minute-walk down to the arena, along a road that is quite steep and not intended for high-heeled shoes, which not all visitors realize until it is too late. Jogging shoes are recommended. Secondly, the seats, although VIP-lounge comfortable compared to the stone-seats at the Arena di Verona, need extra padding, which of course can be bought at the box-office and thirdly, Swedish summers can be wonderfully warm even in the evening, but when the damp cold August air from the surrounding forests creeps down in the quarry one needs winter equipment. Moreover it happens that the sky opens and the rain pours down, so a good rain-poncho (which can also be bought) is a necessity. It is easy to see when arriving at the parking lot which of the visitors are seasoned Dalhalla enthusiasts. They are carrying large bags with blankets, cushions, jackets, you name it. If all this sounds discouraging I can promise you that the experience of being there more than compensates for the hardship that the visit may involve.

 

 

With the large stage and the fascinating and unique opportunities for inventive staging that the Dalhalla arena offers, it is understandable that they choose spectacular works for the opera festival. This year’s festival has two Puccini operas, Turandot and Tosca. By some strange coincidence I saw the same two operas on consecutive evenings in Helsinki a few months ago (see Turandot review here and Tosca here) and some comparisons may be unavoidable.

 

Turandot was performed by the Bolshoi Theatre of Russia, one of the most renowned opera companies in the world, on their first ever visit to Sweden. Their own enormous house in Moscow closed in the end of July for a three-year, £400m renovation.  Accustomed to the large stage of their own house, the ensemble probably felt quite at home at Dalhalla, where the stage has about the same dimensions. It also seems that they were able to transfer the Turandot sets to Dalhalla with only minor adjustments. The basic stage picture shows a big, stylized, featureless torso (well, it has a head) surrounded by a herd of smaller figures, looking like the fantastic terracotta army, found and dug out in 1974 in China; the action is set around 200 B.C., the difference being that while Emperor Shi Huangdi’s soldiers all had individual features, these ones are anonymous and they are not 6000! On both sides of the stage there are movable screens in different colours, with which it is possible to change the picture, completely hide the back of the stage etc. The lighting plays an important part of the staging and during the first act the daylight, since this was a clear evening, was still so dominant that the stage lights were more or less outdone.

 

The very first chords of the orchestra at once made it clear to first time visitors that the Dalhalla acoustics are not just a myth. It is a clear, almost analytical sound with enough space around it to give it body and punch. It is a surprisingly forward sound, considering the outdoor surroundings, where in Verona’s vast arena the sound picture is recessed and quite dim – unless you can afford to buy tickets for the front stalls. These chords also confirmed that this orchestra is world-class. It is a lean sound, lean but not weak and the precision was impressive, the brass menacing and imposing. Conductor Alexander Vedernikov, not to be confused with the likewise named bass singer, who once was a great name at Bolshoi, had a firm grip of the proceedings and kept the drama moving on. The chorus, quite as important as any of the protagonists in this opera, was also magnificent, powerful and incisive and with none of the Slavonic wobble that has sometimes marred East European performances, at least on records. There were also spectacular contributions from the ballet, e.g. in the second act celebrations of the Emperor with enormous yellow flags filling the stage. Over all the mass-scenes were skilfully handled, juxtaposing the different groupings of the people, with contrastingly coloured costumes. I have to say, though, that compared to the Helsinki production, the first act beheading of the Prince of Persia, which luckily takes place off-stage, passed by rather unnoticed and the long, maybe overlong, scene beginning Act II with Ping, Pang and Pong felt a little static and bloodless, in spite of good singing and acting. There Helsinki managed to put life into the proceeding by employing three mimers who were a kind of projection of the three ministers.

 

 

Dalhalla also invites unconventional stage solutions, sometimes out of necessity – there is for example no curtain – and in this performance they made inventive use of the lake, separating the stage from the audience at the beginning of Act III. By then, despite the cloudless sky only pierced by the odd, twinkling star, it was almost pitch-black in the arena and it was really effective to have two rowing-boats with torches searching the water, while on stage actors with torches also searched... for what? Of course, the identity of the unknown prince. Under the threat of being killed if nobody could come up with his name, nobody is allowed to sleep (Nessun dorma). Terror and abuse of power is something that runs all through history, connecting our time with the Empire of China more than 2000 years ago. This opera is also highly modern, or rather timeless, in so far as it illustrates how people under pressure and threat react.

 

But the real message of this opera, in spite of all the cruelty that is displayed, is after all that love is stronger than hate, that blood is warmer than ice. When at the very end of the opera Calaf’s love defeats Turandot’s ice, she sings Odi! Squillan le trombe! (Sound the trumpets!), and the trumpets are sounded, not from the orchestral pit though, but from a shelf on the vertical wall of Dalhalla, high above the stage, high above the audience, again illuminated by torches. A brilliant stroke of genius. A more conventional but highly illuminating piece of staging is in the scene with the three riddles. Every correct answer is marked with flashing jackpot lights.

 

There is a now a new generation of singers at the Bolshoi, having taken over after the Golden age names like Vishnevskaya, Atlantov, Arkhipova and Nesterenko, to name but a few. But still there is the odd veteran, like Alexander Arkhipov as the Emperor, who sounded just as old as he is supposed to be and gave a really moving portrait of Altoum. The three ministers, Ping, Pang and Pong, always have their curtain calls as a trio, and they were good but Nikolai Kazansky as Ping was head and shoulders above the others, especially vocally. He exhibited a fine, expressive baritone and it was no surprise to read in the programme booklet that he has been a successful Mozart Figaro. A fine stage presence. Vadim Lynkovsky, singing Timur, was vocally perhaps the most impressive of all the soloists: a big, sonorous, warm bass voice. Just as with his counterpart in Helsinki I wish the part had been much bigger. His slave girl, Liù, was sung by Lolitta Semenina. She could be a little hard in tone with a trace of wobble in her basically very beautiful voice, but she sang a very inward Signore, ascolta in the first act and her death scene was likewise finely nuanced but also done with great intensity. Oleg Kulko has had quite an extensive international career with appearances at the Metropolitan and Washington operas recently. He has a fairly large-sized tenor, and he was a straightforward Calaf, singing with heroic tone in the second act riddle scene and delivering a fine Nessun dorma. Turandot herself, Anna Shafajinskaya, Ukrainian and Canadian citizen and frequent guest in many of the big opera houses worldwide, has been heard in this part at both Covent Garden and the ENO. The first impression was of a thick-voiced, almost contraltoish singer but she soon showed other qualities and she could float a hushed pianissimo to good effect, which not every Turandot can manage. It is a big, strong voice that no orchestra in the world can drench and she was untiring through the performance of this devillishly high-lying part. When, after Calaf had given the correct answer to her third riddle, she pleads to her father not to give her away to this stranger, she suddenly adopts a much smaller, lyric voice with much more warmth. But when she sings “No man will ever get me” she is again the icy princess. In the last act, while trying to force Liù to reveal the name of the unknown prince, she asks: how can you be so strong? And Liù answers: It’s love. Then again some of her ice melts and she becomes a human. She impressed greatly.

 

In a nutshell, then: a splendid staging, wonderful playing by the orchestra and with impressive vocal performances. And even if we towards the end of the opera, near midnight, felt just as icy as Turandot’s heart, when love finally triumphed our hearts also warmed.

 

 

Göran Forsling



Photographs © Martin Litens 2005



 

 

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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)