Puccini: Turandot

La Scala

La Scala, Milan, 3 May 2011 3 stars

TurandotI find Turandot luxuriously orchestrated, with some robustly effective finales, and certainly a colour palette that one doesn’t find in other Puccini works. But compared to the lush orientalism of Madama Butterfly, or the initimate, then grand, and more emotionally-involving La Bohème, or the tense dramatic flow of Tosca, the musical dramaturgy of Turandot falls flat. So much time is devoted to Ping, Pang and Pong and their whingeing, not to mention the salvos to the Emperor, neither of which have awfully much to do with the plot at hand.

There are only two or three arias that stand out; I suppose that would be considered plenty for most operas, but not for Puccini with his earlier, melody-drenched works and his assured sense of continuous drama through music. The final Turandot finale, composed by Franco Alfano, is—as Toscanini noticed in the first production at La Scala—out of character with the rest of the opera, and does not create a satisfying or even believable end, to my taste.

The luxurious programme for the new production at La Scala (seen 12 April, the second performance) places this production at a distinct disadvantage, as it gorgeously offers designs and photos of far more elaborate previous productions at this theatre. And Turandot, to compensate for its dramatic longueurs, does need all the physical glamour—even kitsch—it can get get. The current costumes, by Giorgio Barberio Corsetti (also the director) and Cristian Taraborrelli, are austere, with the peasants in almost modern earth shades of green, blue, and brown. Calaf, in brown burlap, blends in all too well with the ever-mobile arcades that ascend and descend from the raked stage. Turandot, whose face first appears in Act I on the backdrop, in place of the moon, has no spectacular headdress, costume, or train as in many prior productions, but appears in a comparatively simple white ensemble.

Corsetti’s production is consumed with Chinese acrobats, who descend from ropes, along with the expected kung-fu mannerisms. The executioner is one of the acrobats, and Ping, Pang, and Pong (as if they weren’t boring enough) have acrobatic doubles. An immense amount of time is spent with Chinese magic-lantern effects, again projected on the backdrop. Over and over, these induced yawns. At the end of the opera, I hope unintentionally, Corsetti reproduces the white Chinese wedding that ended Ivor Novello’s Careless Rapture at Drury Lane in 1936, with everyone dressed in white, an effect that makes the Alfano finale seem even more insipid than it is.

Musically, things were more impressive. Valery Gergiev led a powerful and at times subtle orchestra, with a nice sense of Puccianian coloration. The Scala chorus was, as ever, thrilling. Lise Lindstrom, who has sung this role the world over, including at New York’s Metropolitan, sang powerfully, if icily, for "In questa reggia". The Liù, Maija Kovalevska, and the Timur, Marco Spotti, were excellent. The ministers were fine, if forgettable—thanks to their dull numbers. I found the Calaf of Stuart Neill strong, but without a really lovely, ringing tenor. A certain gruffness prevailed, making "Nessun dorma" less than it might have been.

For some reason, there were only company bows at the end, as if no one dared to come out from the curtain alone. But the audience did not offer resistance, or booing, having been satisfied with a well-sung and played, if hardly spectacular Turandot. Pehaps in these austere times for so many European economies, that
was what was called for.

By Richard Traubner