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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 -1924)
Turandot (1920-6) - Lyric Drama in Three Acts
The last scene completed in this production by Luciano Berio. In conventional productions by Alfano
Turandot…Gabriele Schnaut
Altoum…Robert Tear
Timur… Paata Burchuladze
Calaf… Johan Botha
Liù…Christina Gallardo-Domas
Ping…Boaz Daniel
Pang…Vincente Ombuena
Pong… Steve Davislim
A Mandarin…Robert Bork
Vienna State Opera Chorus and Tőlz Boys Choir: Chorus Master: Rupert A. Huber
Vienna Philharmonic/Valery Gergiev
Stage Music: Mozarteum Orchestra
A co-production of the Mariisnki Theatre, St. Petersburg and the Festpielhaus, Baden-Baden. Recorded at the Grosses Festpielhaus, Salzburg, August 2002
TDK DVD Video - DV-OPTURSF [Opera: 125 mins; Special Features: 16 mins]

The tepid applause for the two principals at the end of this production says it all. Botha’s Calaf is bland, the voice almost expressionless and the acting and girth hardly that of a headstrong man sacrificing and gambling all for the love of an ice maiden. All would sleep through his ‘Nessun dorma!’ Schnaut, looking like a disorientated Brünnhilde, rather than a Puccini heroine, is little better, her high notes insecure, with too much vibrato and her acting confined to grimaces and holding her head as if something vile was continuously beneath her nose. Not so for Christina Gallardo-Domas whose sweet lyricism drew for her Liù the warmest applause. Robert Tear was in fine authoritative tone as Altoum the hapless Emperor. Tear, aged 63, at the time of this 2002 recording is still in excellent voice. Daniel, Ombuena and Davislim were all good as Ping, Pang and Pong but were practically defeated by their ridiculous costumes (more about the visual aspects of this production below) in their sentimental Act II trio when they dream of peace at home on their estates, even though against a floral backdrop.

My highest marks are reserved for the beautiful playing in every department of the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Gergiev. I would just single out, as examples of their virtuosity and subtle sensitivity, their playing of Puccini’s lovely moon music in Act I, the music for Ping, Pang, Pong’s trio mentioned above and the Act I climax as Calaf strikes the huge gong and the Processional of Act II. Gergiev’s expressive interpretation subtly underlines the mechanisation of Pountney’s conception, in Act I, without sacrificing the essential Puccini

This is a remarkable production - a modern conception as one can deduce from the booklet cover illustration above. One first sees that huge head in back view during the lovely Act I choral ‘Perché tarda la luna’ lit appropriately blue and sylvan. The huge head turns full face then splits down the middle to reveal Turandot atop of a 9 metre train. The explanation in the notes runs – "Her almost pathological hatred of men is … the reason she hides behind a mask of rejection and inhumanity to protect her vulnerable psyche." It must be said that Brian Large’s low camera angle looking up at her as though from the pits of hell (low foreground coloured blood red with the uniforms of the automatons) during the setting of her three riddles is brilliant and quite terrifying theatre. This Turandot is set in a totalitarian state populated by robots, standing on tiers of scaffolding with large gear wheels and looking like rows of ‘Edward Scissorhands’; robots that only become human when Turandot surrenders to love. This mechanical scenario just about kills the atmosphere of the lovely Act I moon chorus rendering it grotesquely incongruous. Other costumes are equally weird. Ping, Pang and Pong, for instance, dressed in plastic macs have spanners and saws etc for arms.

Luciano Berio’s ending is nicely integrated into the structure; the music anodyne, and mercifully not anti-Puccini. The idea to ease and make more appealing the transition from the sacrifice of Liù to the declaration of love and surrender of Turandot is good but it only partially succeeds here. The sight of the two principals symbolically washing their guilt by bathing the body of Liù lying on what looks like a morgue trolley with tin bowl is only a few steps from Fawlty Towers farce.

Disappointing performances from the two principals in an eccentric modern production that is only partially successful mainly due to Gallardo-Domas’s nicely expressive Liù and the beautiful playing of the Vienna Philharmonic under Gergiev.

Ian Lace

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