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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Turandot (1924)
Rebeka Lokar (Turandot), Jorge de Léon (Calaf), Erika Grimaldi (Liù), In-Sung Sim (Timur), Antonello Ceron (Emperor Altoum), Marco Philippo Romano (Ping), Luca Casalin (Pang), Mikeldi Atxalandabaso (Pong), Roberto Abbondanza (A mandarin), Joshua Sanders (The Prince of Persia)
Children’s Chorus Teatro Regio and Conservatorio ‘G. Verdi’ Turin
Chorus and Orchestra Teatro Regio Torino/Gianandrea Noseda
Stefano Poda (stage director, choreography, set, costume and lighting designer)
Tiziano Mancini (video director)
rec. live 14, 18 & 20 January 2018, Teatro Regio, Turin, Italy
Sung in Italian with subtitles in Italian, English, German, Spanish, French, Korean, Japanese
C MAJOR DVD 748108 [115 mins]

Turandot was Puccini’s final opera, left unfinished when he died in a Brussels clinic in 1924. There have been at least two attempts at completion, one by Franco Alfano the following year, and another in 2001 by Luciano Berio. Each has its supporters and detractors. The opera is usually given with the Alfano ending, but when it was first performed in 1926 the conductor, Toscanini, preferred to halt the performance at the point where the composer died. The team behind this production from Turin Opera, Gianandrea Noseda and Stefano Poda who, remarkably, was responsible for everything you see on stage, took the same decision. This may be a factor for some potential purchasers.

The Princess Turandot has many suitors, but she wants none of them. Her solution is to set three riddles: if the candidate fails to answer them correctly, he is beheaded. One by one they go to their deaths, but this does not deter Prince Calaf. Amongst those who try to dissuade him is Liù, a slave girl who loves him ever since he smiled at her many years before. To Turandot’s dismay, Calaf solves the riddles, but still she refuses to accept him. He therefore sets her a challenge: if, by the following day, she has found out his name she can have him put to death. If not, she must bow to the inevitable. Turandot has Liù tortured in order to discover the name, but Liù swears that she will die rather than reveal it. She snatches a dagger from a guard and stabs herself with it. A sad funeral cortege ensues. The composer’s own death intervened at this point. The rest of the libretto has Calaf revealing his name, and the kiss that follows is enough to transform the cruel, icy princess into one consumed by love.

Since most of Puccini’s leading ladies – Mimi, Butterfly, Tosca: let us leave aside the splendid Minnie of La fanciulla del West! – come to a sorry end, many commentators have held the view that Puccini was temperamentally unsuited to a heroine transformed by love. We will never know how he would have completed the work, but those who find Alfano’s effort excessive, and even crude, have an alternative in this performance.

As the curtain rises ten archers, dressed in white, stand in a line. Some of them loose their arrows toward the back of the stage. Luckily, those facing the audience hold theirs in check. The whole opera is performed within a huge, white, rectangular space with alcoves on its three walls. There are no signs that we are in China, nor any indication of a particular historical period. A crowd, again in white, calls for the executioner to dispatch Turandot’s latest failed suitor, the Prince of Persia. The executioner’s team is made up of near-naked dancers. Liù is also dressed in white, but Calaf wears a sober, black suit. Turandot, when she appears, wears a blood-red skirt and her hair is jet-black. She makes no gesture of pardon for the Prince, and reacts to Calaf’s obvious infatuation with a series of strange, spasmodic gestures. The plot requires Calaf to declare his challenge by striking a gong. In this production the moment is marked by three dancers who burst through paper membranes in the backcloth. As the act draws to its close more arrows appear, and crucially, Turandot – who has not yet sung a note – also has an arrow, with which she herself executes the Prince of Persia as he lies prostrate on the ground.

Act 2 opens with the three courtiers, Ping, Pang and Pong, winding sheets around the corpses of, we assume, Turandot’s previous suitors. When Turandot eventually appears, to sing her celebrated aria ‘In questa reggia’, she is surrounded by female members of the chorus. They are all dressed as she is, in sumptuous yet virginal white. The chorus mime her words and gestures, to the point that it is difficult to pick her out from the rest. These multiple Turandots set the riddles, which are answered by Calaf from the side of the stage, bizarrely reclining on a kind of chaise-longue. As the final riddle is set – what is that ice which, paradoxically, provides fire? – the lighting changes to profound red. This is only one of many truly spectacular visual images that adorn this production.

Calaf has solved all three riddles, and the Princess must now discover his name. No torture is shown: instead, Liù is completely surrounded and dominated by the chorus’s multiple Turandots, another striking image, and one that provides an elegant solution to an event that is almost always inadequately staged. Her suicide by stabbing is most sensitively and imaginatively done. Though she dies, she remains upright; it is the Turandots, who have mimed the action alongside her, who sink to the ground. Liù is radiant, ecstatic, smiling at Calaf: she is the one who, in this staging, demonstrates the all-encompassing power of love.

In choosing to end the opera with Liù’s death, the team from Turin abandon the absurdly unearned happy ending, and with Turandot herself indistinguishable in the crowd, the story becomes Liù’s. Though dubious at first, I now find this strangely satisfying. Visually, the production is stunning, and the musical performance is superb. Jorge de Léon is in fine voice as Calaf, and though the production gives him little opportunity to demonstrate his acting skills, he cuts a commanding figure. In an opera short on arias, and where the musical structure does not allow applause to interrupt the action, he acquits himself admirably in ‘Nessun dorma’, his big moment. Turandot’s big moment is ‘In questa reggia’, and this too is splendidly sung by Rebeka Lokar. A moment of sour tuning half way through prompted me to return to other performances. Joan Sutherland (Decca, with Zubin Mehta, 1972) is superior in terms of both beauty of tone and dramatic pacing, but recording an aria in a studio is not the same thing as reaching the back row of an opera house, particularly when the aria is also the very first thing the artist has to sing. The production has her hidden amongst the others, allowing her no scope at all to establish Turandot as a person. This is surely a crucial part of Poda’s view of the opera. The audience’s applause, fairly lukewarm overall, it must be said, makes clear that Erika Grimaldi is a favourite in Turin. She is very affecting as Liù, particularly in the final scene, with only a very occasional harshness appearing at the top of the voice. There is not a weak link in the rest of the cast, though one might have hoped for a little more attention to the actual notes Puccini wrote in the first scene featuring the otherwise admirable Ping, Pang and Pong. A special mention is due, also, to In-Sung Sim’s noble portrayal of Timur, Calaf’s father and Liù’s master. The orchestral playing is magnificent, and Noseda drives the music on with huge sense of purpose and refreshingly little grand opera excess.

William Hedley

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