Saturday, July 9, 2016

In Munich, a superbly integrated concept renews Turandot's possibilities

In Puccini's last grand operatic gesture, the ruthless Princess Turandot rules in China's legendary past and any prince who dares to wed her must answer three riddles correctly or lose their head. One prince, Calaf, achieves the impossible and despite Turandot's objections to honour the law, her heart is finally melted by a love she never saw coming.

Johan Botha (Calaf), Irina Lungu (Liù) and Goran Jurić (Timur)
Directors rarely interfere with Turandot's ancient Chinese setting but in Bayerische Staatsoper's current production which premiered in 2011, Spanish director Carlus Padrissa reimagines it in the year 2046. It's a futurist fantasy world when Europe is ruled by China after plunging into a debilitating deft-ridden financial crisis. Rather than dictate or confuse the story, it provides a stunning background to it, a concept that you're not required to make complete sense of. Perhaps responding to the ramifications of the Global Financial Crisis, Padrissa might never have imagined what now could precipitate the fragmentation of the European Union and the belief now that anything is possible in this world in flux.

Working with La Fura dels Baus (the Barcelona theatrical group who produced the opening ceremony for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics), the result is a bold and spectacular experience of performance art and art installation-like form and feels superbly integrated with Puccini's bombastic score.

Ice-hockey, ice-skating handmaids and an iceberg world that's melts away as Calaf answers each riddle pad the spectacle with references to this ice-hearted princess. Circus-like trapeze artists dangle, air-swim and unfurl banners, slender-framed steel structures recede into the distance to depict a congested megalopolis and at the epicentre of this world is Princess Turandot's centrifugal 'throne' which imbues her with the power of a sorceress.

Johan Botha (Calaf) and Nina Stemme (Turandot)
For this, Roland Olbeter's set design is a simple affair which maintains the expansive stage area to deal with the huge chorus and allow them to move in and out almost unnoticeably. What dazzles the eyes are Franc Aleu's kinetically stunning video projections, further enhanced by audience-issued 3D glasses, not only novel (the first time I've donned them for an opera) but effective. Chu Uroz's costume designs are a rich assortment of manga-like and print-media inspired text for the chorus of citizens which give them a sense of uniformed containment, while the ruling class are gowned in shimmering solid colour. In black with metal ornament, Turandot appears both aggressive and in mourning.

Even without a clear understanding of the text's nuance, this Turandot gives an epic, powerfully visual and thumping musical reading. The immensity of sound that the enthusiasm of conductor Asher Fisch demands pushes his artists to the limit with only the strong surviving. Regardless of the overindulgence and occasional misalignment with the onstage artists, the music emanating from the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, in a it's thrilling range, was mesmerising.

The music and staging all work wonders in an opera that, more than others, doesn't generally ask its cast to do somersaults when acting but which requires exceptional and seamless vocal application. On this front there were unexpected disappointments.

Goran Jurić (Timur) and Irina Lungu (Liù)
From the start, hefty tenor Johan Botha took the notes in hand but struggled to convert them into a tightly refined whole. Botha's usual power was unreliable and if he was saving himself for a "Nessun dorma" to impress the audience, the highlight never came and choosing not to take a victorious hold on the last "vincera". The woolly warmth of the voice was frayed at the edges and his overall performance appeared laboured, both vocally and physically.

Botha was upstaged noticeably by formidable bass Goran Jurić who gave the role of Calaf's father, Timur, a huge presence. Mostly wheelchair reliant, Jurić portrayed the ageing Timur with the nobility his identity hides with striking fluidity in voice and a rumbling force that reeks of determination and belies his character's ailing body.

The rich and assured-voiced Irina Lungu also gave a distinguished performance as Liù, singing effortlessly with an attractive top and impressing with her ghostly sustained pianissimo while magnifying her character well beyond her slave girl status. In a monumental finale Liù ascends to her death in a caged harness, rising above a shattered Turandot who, defeated, falls to the ground. Surrounded by a swaying forest of bamboo, the scene is a magnificent ending at the point where Puccini reached before his untimely death and where here the production ends, feeling abrupt but surprisingly resolved.

As Turandot's father, the Emperor Altoum shows little of his authority with tenor Ulrich Ress's lacklustre performance. Ping (Andrea Borghini), Pang (Kevin Conners) and Pong (Matthew Grills) are more synchronised in step than they are as a trio of voice but Borghini set himself apart with an his exceptionally solid and resonant baritone. The Bayerische Staatsoper chorus came to the party with strength of voice but occasionally flummoxed with balance and cues.

Nina Stemme (Turandot)
Much rested on the shoulders of Swedish soprano Nina Stemme and she never disappointed. Having recently performed the role at the Metropolitan Opera, Stemme brought unrelenting power, firm technique and hellish ferocity to forge a Turandot of otherworldly voice. Turandot's lament for her brutalised ancestor, Princess Lo-u-Ling, in her opening aria, "In questa reggia", was replete with harrowing sentiment and the three riddles were spat with enough voluminous ripple to reach the bowels of the house. Stemme makes believe there is no limit to the voice.

Despite Turandot's popular appeal in the repertoire, it rarely makes me think I'm seeing a work I'll be pining for. This Bayerische Staatsoper production pushes the possibilities so marvellously, however, that it renews the desire to see what other concepts can be thrown at it to compliment Puccini's score. This time, it was more than enough to excuse a few vocal disappointments.

Bayerische Staatsoper

Production photographs: Wilfried Hösl

No comments:

Post a Comment