Puccini: Turandot

Bavarian State Opera

National Theatre, Munich, 29 July 2012 3.5 star

TurandotHow do you solve a problem like Turandot?  Perhaps by not trying to.  Franco Alfano and more recently Luciano Berio have each attempted to complete the opera from the mass of sketches Puccini left at his death.  But Alfano’s ending is felt by most to be too bombastic and Berio’s too out of keeping with the style of the rest.   So, in Carlus Padrissa’s spectacular new production for Bavarian State Opera, the decision has been made to adopt the non-solution pioneered by Toscanini at the premiere, and stop where Puccini’s score stops.

The ending, though, is not the only difficulty the opera presents.  Or rather, the impossibility of completion is a symptom of a deeper problem.  There is too great a contrast between the monumental music of the unknown prince, Calàf, as he answers riddles in order to win over the ice-maiden Turandot, and the humanity of the music used to paint the suffering of his slave-girl Liù.  Leaving off the implausible final duet, in which Calàf persuades the Princess to fall in love with him, despite her having just tortured poor Liù to death, only partially addresses this.  As it happens, this production does manage to find its way around this conundrum; but it is the consequence of directorial incompetence rather than discernment.

Padrissa has been invited to Munich in his capacity as the director of Catalan collective La Fura dels Baus, who incorporate urban street performance into elaborate shows that claim to offer the audience a complete theatrical experience.  Think of anything you’ve ever seen on a stage in a theatre and I guarantee it’s been tossed into this production.  Trapeze artists, colourful back-screen projections, Pink-Floyd-esque light shows and animation, full frontal nudity (top halves and bottom halves presented separately), roller-skating girls, street-dancing boys etc.  It could have easily descended into that familiar fruit cocktail effect – a mush of indistinguishable lumps.  But, it was a carefully crafted show, coalescing around a few identifiable themes from the libretto: decapitation, the icy coldness of the princess, and a huo guo of generic East Asian images – with more than a nod to the film Bladerunner – that passes for Chinese-ness.  Anyway, it’s all very entertaining in a Cirque du Soleil kind of a way.  Now all they need to do is find a composer to write music to fit what they’re doing and they’ll have quite a show on their hands.

An opera staging, though, is only successful when the action grows out of the music.  For the opening 20 minutes or so, it was as if someone had left the TV on with the sound down and put something unrelated on the stereo.  While all the visually exciting stuff was going on, the opera singers were, for the most part, stuck out at the front of the stage and – with the exception of Ping, Pang and Pong, who were given some intricate choreography to contend with – expected to park and bark in the time honoured fashion.  The effect was to bracket the singers with the orchestra in static relief against the busy, often irrelevant, visual extravaganza that was going on behind.  With this spatial duality, the more human characters – Liù and Timur, Calàf’s long-lost father and deposed King of Tartary – were forced into the epic time frame of the other characters, giving a greater sense of coherence to the opera.

But, with all the singers distanced like this, the action failed to emotionally engage the audience.  Jennifer Wilson, as Turandot, has a powerful dramatic soprano voice, which rang out over the full orchestra.  And Marco Berti’s clear, pure tenor was also impressive against Puccini’s unforgiving orchestration.  But, simply plonked on the stage without any clear direction, both came across as characterless archetypes.  The only singer who really charmed was 2009 Cardiff Singer of the World Ekaterina Scherbachenko as Liù – no timid victim she, but willing to assert herself in her exchanges with the Princess.  A few days ago, I praised Dan Ettinger for diving unselfconsciously into the schmaltziness of La bohème.  Again, he was at one with the mood on stage; only this time it was a mood of stark alienation that left the audience cold.  I know Puccini was striving for marmoreal grandeur here, but there has to be a better way of achieving it than this.  The tame applause at the end said it all: appreciative but unmoved.

This was a fascinating night in the theatre, but all the insights this new production offers into Puccini’s flawed masterpiece are accidental rather than planned.

By Marc Brooks