Sunday, June 15, 2014

Palau Des Les Arts Reina Sofia
13th June 2014

Even before the performance was underway in the cavernous main hall of the Palau de Les Arts, a standing ovation greeted conductor, Zubin Mehta, who responded with a big, powerful and distinctive sound in opening Giacomo Puccini's last opera, Turandot. Then, when the curtain was raised to reveal the majestic force of Chinese director, Chen Kaige's shimmering blockbuster production, which first premiered in the same venue back in 2008, it was clear the performance ahead would be a treat to the senses.

The music of Puccini's three-act opera is not big enough to veil the lunacy of the plot and the lack of character development it suffers, but it is big enough to inspire stunning entertainment. Dare I say, Kaige's direct approach and cautionary filmmaker's eye combined to create a production that could just as easily park itself on Broadway. Liu King's intricate sets depicting an ancient Chinese imperial complex, designed and built in China, beautifully enhanced everything from solo performance to large ensemble. The visual splendour continued with a glistening stage floor, exquisitely coloured and embroidered costumes by Chen Tong Xun and lighting that illuminated the stage with dramatic precision by Albert Faura.

On the downside, a few rather cheesy moments made the proximity to Broadway that much closer. A languid Mexican wave (unless it originated in ancient China) and a parasol-armed chorus of loyal subjects converging into a clustered formation seemed to express an uncertainty of not knowing how to keep a large chorus occupied. Also, the drama was diminished by a tendency for the performers to face the audience rather more frequently than they did to each other. But this is a fairy-tale after all and Kaige's filmmaking expertise (Farewell My Concubine) presented it as such, more than I’ve seen before.

And what an odd tale Turandot is! Love at first sight is taken to the extreme when an unknown stranger falls for an icy princess who vowed never to marry unless a noble suitor can solve three riddles. Of course, the riddles are too difficult to solve but they don't prevent noble fools trying, even if failure leads to beheading. Then along comes an unknown stranger (if you're dressed like a nobleman, you must be one) and upsets the princess by solving all three of them. Now why would a man force himself on a woman who clearly isn't interested, worse, faces death by trying? Being a tale, it might be forgiven for its irreconcilable plot, so if it wasn't for Puccini's rich, dramatic and emotional score brimming with tender arias, fearsome duets and surging choral music, the story might very well fall flat in the theatre. In saying that, I imagine Carlo Gozzi's 1762 play, Turandot, on which Puccini based his opera, is unlikely ever to see a stage again.

Puccini's subject matter was surprising, given the success of his verismo operas; La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), La Fanciulla del West (1910), La Rondine (1917). And of course, he had already delved into the Far East with Madama Butterfly (1904). Puccini died in 1924 without completing the final act but had left detailed sketches, which were entrusted to Franco Alfonso and the opera premiered in 1926 at Milan's Teatro alla Scala.

Heading back to the performance, after an impressive lead, it was the subtlety of sound that Mehta needed to establish in a theatre which amplifies the sound miraculously but unforgivingly. Initially, a divide seemed to exist between stage and pit but by midway through Act I Mehta harnessed the two. Elevating Turnadot's music to a level rarely heard, it was as if Mehta was able to give each of the hard-working, focused musicians of the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana their chance to be heard in absolute glory.

Lise Lindstrom, rendered Princess Turandot with combined ruthlessness and grace, much to Kaige’s intentions, giving Turandot a great sense of approachability and humanity. Lindstrom's engaging soprano voice exhibited dramatic strength and colour, both sweetly edged and full of rich resonance in the lower range. In Turandot's extended Act II aria, "In questo reggia", and subsequent duet with Calaf (the unknown stranger), Lindstrom excelled, slicing the air with penetrating beauty and delivering a knife-edge chill before exposing Turandot's vulnerability after Calaf solves the three riddles.

Jorge de León expressed Calaf's determination to win Turandot's heart in fine, confident form. Already impressive in Act I, de Leon opened up in the second act to reveal a voice funnelling a warm viscosity and an emotion-filled, warbling, high, throaty tenor. De Leon was equally at ease in the duets he shared with Turandot and the slave-girl, Liu, as he was in his solos. The pressure of Act III's (everyone knows) "Nessun dorma" was beautifully delivered with clear, measured phrasing, expressing Calaf's contemplations with real pathos after which the hall erupted with a roar belonging in a football stadium.

Portraying Liu, young soprano, Jessica Nuccio catapulted herself into the role firmly before her Act I aria, "Signor ascolta" was over, at much the same time Mehta did in settling the orchestra. Nuccio's clean phrasing and delicate tone impressed, and a quivering vibrato preceding her public suicide in "Tu che di gel sei cinta" was heartfelt and masterly.

Timur, the deposed King of Tartary, and Calaf's long lost father, was convincingly carried off by Alexánder Tsymbalyuk in a broad pleasing, almost feathery bass voice. Lighter entertainment was provided by the trio of palace ministers, Ping, Pang and Pong, each respectively performed by Germán Olvera, Valentino Buzza and Pablo Garcia López. In their lengthy and demanding Act II scene, mocking the endless imperial rituals and longing for their homes in the idyllic countryside, the trio effortlessly sang and danced their reflections in expert showbiz style.

Each of Turnadot's three acts end in much the same way, utilising huge boisterous brass and percussive strength to energise a large chorus, easily maximising the spectacle. Here, the Cor de la Generalitat Valencia reached explosive proportion and maintained clarity while being equally mesmerising during the score's soft musical hues.

The opera's final scene ends hastily as Turandot's icy cloak melts and she names Calaf, "Love". For me it doesn't quite work and I wonder if it would've for Puccini if he had completed or revised the score himself. It especially looked at odds as Turandot and Calaf strangely rushed off the stage in, presumably, blissful escape, but it looked more like an eagerness to get off the stage and out of their costumes. It also didn't seem to dignify the splendid chorus in their most magnificent moment singing in thunderous force, "O sole! Vita! Eternita".

I thought about the many operas (some I'm not even aware of) that have fallen out of fashion and vice versa over the last few centuries. Will Turandot's appeal fade? Will it disappear from the repertoire of popular operas it currently sits amongst? Or will its muscular music keep alive a far-fetched tale? In all the productions of Turandot I've seen, there has never been an attempt to redeploy the story outside its ancient Chinese setting and now, after seeing an impressively glittering staging, I wonder if it can be engineered with a radically new approach.

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