Saturday 17 February 2018

Puccini - Turandot (Turin, 2018)

Giacomo Puccini - Turandot

Teatro Regio Torino, 2018

Gianandrea Noseda, Stefano Poda, Rebeka Lokar, Jorge de León, Erika Grimaldi, In-Sung Sim, Antonello Ceron, Marco Filippo Romano, Luca Casalin, Mikeldi Atxalandabaso, Roberto Abbondanza, Joshua Sanders

OperaVision - January 2018

Puccini's position in the pantheon of opera greats is pretty much unshakeable, with works like Tosca, Madama Butterfly and La Bohème likely to remain as much of a fixture in many opera houses as the stalls seats. Even in those great works, it's the musical qualities that elevate the manipulative twists of the drama and, in some cases, compensate for the thinness of the characterisation. Puccini's other works around his glorious Trinity are variable and equally flawed, but often more interesting. I remain agnostic on La Fanciulla del West, where as interesting as the musical development is it can't redeem the banalities of its stock Western gold rush clichés, and I think that the earlier Manon Lescaut has been elevated beyond its merit, but Il Trittico is a fine showcase that extends the range of Puccini's musical and dramatic palette. And then there's Turandot, whose unfinished state offers an intriguing contemplation of what might have been.

Puccini's struggle to finish the work before his death in 1924 perhaps gives some indication that the finished work might inevitably have been just as flawed and compromised as the endings that were written for it by Franco Alfano and Luciano Berio. It's as if Puccini had solved the first two of the Princess Turandot's riddles and hadn't yet figured out the answer to the third, but the two thirds of the work completely scored by the composer offer an intriguing glimpse of a new direction that Puccini might have further explored. The first act alone is monumental on the scale of the Triumphal March from Verdi's Aida, but it carries an undercurrent of menace and a through-compositional flow that is equal to Wagner at his most charged and lyrical. All too often (The Met, Royal Opera House), Turandot's true qualities risk being obscured and mired in kitsch Oriental fairy-tale fantasy when there is actually a much darker tale in there.

The question then is what to do with Turandot, which risks falling into so many operatic traps and mannerisms that can obscure its true nature and potential. Calixto Bieito's production was the first I've seen that attempted to delve into the dark terror of a cruel authoritarian regime that is vividly depicted in the fairy tale. Instilling fear in the people, blinding them with obscure ideological riddles, oppressing free expression of the individual through the arts, Bieito's vision is a controversial rewriting certainly, but it's a treatment nonetheless that is commensurate with the grand scale of the work's grand musical expression. Interestingly, Bieito's production doesn't attempt to resolve or fix an unfinished work and lets it end on the dark note of Liù's death, and that is also the sentiment that Gianandrea Noseda and Stefano Poda strive to match in their production for the Teatro Regio Torino.

While you could also see some measure of Bieito's vision of Turandot as a totalitarian nightmare in the Turin production, the approach of Stefano Poda is rather more abstract and focussed more on a kind of tyranny of the mind. "Turandot," we are told by Ping, Pang and Pong "does not exist" and Poda takes that as the basis for his production, concerned more with Turandot as an obsessive instinct on the part of Calaf to want to take part in some impossible and unrewarding ideal. According to Poda, Turandot is a dream, the conflict of Calaf struggling to escape his own mind and exist outside of himself. If the case of what to do with Turandot isn't entirely answered by these ideas in the Turin production, perhaps that's because it's an impossible task anyway.

Poda, who designs the costumes and the sets as well as directing, accordingly places Turandot not in some oriental location but in "a non-place made of light". There's something cold and scientific about the setting, all of the figures looking alike, as if cloned, devoid of personality or indeed imperfections. There is a vaguely sinister aspect to this, as it would be if it were the ideology of a nation or state, with Ping Pang and Pong carrying out experiments on dead bodies, but Poda sees it rather as the idealised worldview of someone with no real experience of the outside world. The lines bisecting the almost entirely naked bodies of the dancers in the production are not the result of some experiment operated on them as much as it represents a kind of metaphysical dualism.

Whether you buy into this conceptual idea or not, or whether you even find that it makes sense, the production does at least seek to address the issue of the mythological in Turandot rather than depicting it as a rather improbable and meaningless fairy-tale as it would be if it were taken literally. Little of the traditional stage directions are adhered to, the production representing the usual outward manifestations of torture, beheading and riddle-playing as more of a metaphorical struggle. Purely in terms of spectacle the production looks incredible and is wonderfully choreographed, but it also works in conjunction with Puccini's extraordinary score to create something otherworldly. Noseda's conducting of the work highlights the qualities and the unusual elements of the orchestration that makes a strong case for the opera as the pinnacle of Puccini's output.

The linked interviews here with Stefano Poda and Gianandrea Noseda reveal other interesting thoughts on the subject, Poda observing that Turandot is the last great opera of the Italian tradition. Italian opera could certainly be said to have reached its apogee in Turandot and it ends here appropriately with Puccini's death. It's significant then that the work is unfinished, as if it had nowhere else to go, and Poda is content for it to remain in that state. So too is Noseda who proposed this purist approach towards Puccini's score, noting that Turandot is a product of a post-war unease, looking back for answers in older forms of dramatic expression like Carlo Gozzi. It's no coincidence that many find the ending of Turandot dramatically unsatisfying since Puccini himself was unable to find the answers he was looking for in it.

Poda and Noseda then are both of the opinion that what Puccini has completed is enough and that in its curtailed unfinished state, the work can nonetheless provide a more satisfying or realistic resolution than anything Puccini or any one of the composers who have tried to complete it were able to achieve. Whether you agree with the approach of directors like Stefano Poda or Calixto Bieito before him, the results speak for themselves, revealing that there is far more to Turandot than is often thought and that it deserves to be taken seriously on its musical terms rather than as a piece of operatic kitsch. Those musical and singing challenges are not inconsiderable either and they are given a fine account under Noseda's musical direction. The singing in Turandot can also be very challenging and although Turandot, Calaf and Liù are treated very much as ciphers here, Rebeka Lokar, Jorge de León and Erika Grimaldi perform admirably. Between this and Bieito's production, there's plenty to suggest that Turandot merits this kind of considered approach and in as far as using the unfinished version, it makes a strong case that less is definitely more.

Links: Teatro Regio Torino, OperaVision