Giacomo Puccini - Turandot
Opéra National de Paris, 2023
Marco Armiliato, Robert Wilson, Iréne Theorin, Brian Jagde, Ermonela Jaho, Carlo Bosi, Mika Kares, Florent Mbia, Maciej Kwaśnikowski, Nicholas Jones, Guilhem Worms, Hyun-Jong Roh, Pranvera Lehnert, Izabella Wnorowska-Pluchart
Paris Opera Play - 13th November 2023
Such is the very distinct character and experience of a Robert Wilson production that you imagine that it can't be suitable for every kind of opera, but it's not such an easy thing to fit that into clear dividing lines, and where the line does fall is of course going to be be subjective. You would think that it would be better suited to more abstract work like Einstein on the Beach, where he first made his mark in the world of opera as co-creator with Philip Glass, or Pelléas et Mélisande and the spiritual content of Arvo Pärt's Adam's Passion but his style also seems to chime with baroque very well (Gluck and Handel), except when it doesn't (Monteverdi). You couldn't see his coolness work with the beautiful warm humanity of Mozart, but who knows? I would love to see him direct a Die Zauberflöte, and could someone commission a Robert Wilson Ring Cycle please?...
I wasn't convinced either by his work on Verdi's Aida, even though it looked stunning on the stage, and I was surprisingly impressed with his take on the high drama of the French version of Il Trovatore, so it's not so clear cut. Puccini is another that it's hard to imagine Robert Wilson being suited, but we have already seen Madama Butterfly and this Turandot (seen previously in Madrid) prove otherwise. In the case of Turandot, now playing in Paris and available to view in a brief window though their Paris Opera Play service, the reasons are worth exploring again, although Puccini's opera, the cast here and the spectacle of a Wilson production are reason enough to watch this again.
Like any good opera production its success relies on how well it works with the score and the intent of the opera. That doesn't necessarily mean that the direction has to be sympathetic towards the original intentions of the work (few if any productions match to the letter or even closely adhere to stage directions nowadays), nor even in matching or working with the tone of the music score. There can be as much of interest in contrasting the heat and passion of a music score with a coolness in the direction as a means to examine the potential of a work and perhaps illustrate an hitherto unexplored aspect of a work. I'm not saying that Wilson does this in the case of Turandot, but he certainly brings an uncommon and you would think counterintuitive approach to Puccini's final unfinished masterpiece.
There actually is a cold menace at the heart of this dark fairytale with its authoritarian regime ruled with cruel laws, and that is reflected in the sinister undercurrents of Puccini's score. Calixto Bieito showed one way of bringing that aspect out in his production, but Wilson shows that there is more than one way, and it is if course in his own very distinctive way. The restricted highly controlled movements of the cast, the darkness of moving black panels blotting out the light at the back of the stage instead of thunderclouds. The situation is not natural, so Wilson doesn't resort to natural phenomena for this. When something of nature does appear, such as a bird a stork making a flight across the sky during the mourning of the latest victim to lose his pale bloodless head, it's in response to the sorrowful warmth of the score. Even the bird's movements however are Wilson stylised.
Where Wilson best serves Turandot is in the epic fantasy of the fairytale, not making it a colourful exotic drama (like Andrei Serban at the ROH), but a colourful spectacle of a different hue nonetheless, working primarily with light. It's a superb match for the huge orchestration, the limited movements providing counterpoint rather than a conventional illustrative decoration. It also has the effect of simply gluing you the visuals, really connecting with them, even if they seem occasionally jarring and disruptive to the tone at times with bizarre comedy characters (not just Ping, Pang and Pong). It's visually stunning and despite the impression of it being static there is always something happening, even if it's just the fading and brightening of the light adjusting the whole appearance of a scene.
Credit to conductor Marco Armiliato for matching the lushness of the score with the intent of stage production, rather than feeling a need to present a cold and clinical reading, which would be a disservice to Wilson and Puccini. It's majestic. There are serious singing challenges in this Puccini opera without having to adopt unnatural posture and deliver gestures in the Robert Wilson fashion. Although rightly celebrated for her Puccini roles as Madama Butterfly and Suor Angelica, Liù appears to be less comfortable range for Ermonela Jaho. Iréne Theorin is also a little bit strained here. She's an excellent powerhouse Wagnerian, somewhat inconsistent, but is gloriously imperious in the final scene confronting Liù and Calaf. Turandot is not a large role but it is a very challenging one. Brian Jagde is a fine Decent Calaf, and soars through 'Nessun dorma'. Carlo Bosi is very capable for the role of the old man Altoum.
Whether Turandot has something deeper political to say about love being the answer that will topple a totalitarian regime is debatable, although in its unfinished form without resolution Calixto Bieito certainly made a convincing case for it being a powerful critique of the crushing boot of fascism, but the inherent power of the work, whether for its depiction of a reign of terror or its belief in the healing power of love, is undeniable. His mannerisms will irritate some but the power of Robert Wilson's distinctive vision for this and for the world of opera can't be denied. His Turandot is spectacular, unlike anything else, capturing the otherworldly quality of Puccini’s fairy tale opera, its power, its majesty, and its beauty as a final unfinished testament from this composer.
Photo credits: Agathe Poupeney / Opéra national de Paris