PUCCINI Turandot (Noseda)
Turandot’s riddles are getting no easier to decipher in the 21st century. Now it’s not enough to see Puccini’s last, unfinished opera as an exotic parable; not with its problematic depiction of a barbaric Orient and a frigid but bloodthirsty heroine. Franco Alfano’s tacked-on completion only makes things worse, with its happy-ever-after ending packaging everything up like a shop assistant at Hamleys.
Here comes another attempt to find a new way in. Stefano Poda worked hard for his production for the Teatro Regio Torino, which had its premiere in January 2018: he did the direction, the sets, the costumes, choreography and lighting. Possibly he did the backstage catering, too, although the conducting was left to the former music director Gianandrea Noseda. The result is eye-catching if frustrating.
Ancient Peking is now a glass’n’perspex box, peopled by nubile men and women wearing thongs and nothing else. The nudity is less about titillation than about Poda’s obsession with the body and death. These are preoccupations in the text, too, where even the moon is a ‘severed head’ and Turandot’s subjects are reduced to meat for the executioner’s blade. Indeed, the dancers, whose muscular choreography is rather mesmeric, are marked with red incisions across their torsos, presumably for ease of carving them up later. Act 2 begins with Ping, Pong and Pang bandaging up corpses as if they had just finished the autopsies. When Jorge de León’s Calaf correctly answers ‘blood’ to Turandot’s second riddle, a flayed, writhing man emerges from behind a screen.
And Turandot? ‘She doesn’t exist – only the void exists’, says Ping, and this is another way into Poda’s thinking. His Turandot is accompanied by women wearing identical white outfits and blonde wigs, who lip-sync to Lokar’s words. She’s allowed no personality of her own; but given that Poda and Noseda have opted to finish the opera where Puccini did – the death of Liù – that adds up: Turandot fades away, and it’s Calaf and a still-living Liù who face an uncertain future.
The show forges its own hallucinatory logic and looks stylish, but as with so many productions where body-beautiful dancers dominate in revealing costumes under elaborate lighting, it sometimes feels as if the singers themselves are inconvenient bit-parts. That’s especially the case during a clunky riddle scene, during which Calaf perches on a chaise longue in a booth on the side of the stage while Turandot and her clones twitch around on the other side of a wall. He is the least comfortable person on stage, sometimes literally walking around in circles as the set revolves. In an opera that can seem like a passionless pageant, there is not that much more humanity here.
Noseda will be missed at Turin, as this punchy and incisive performance reveals. Overall, speeds are brisk but there is plenty of atmospheric detail: the sinister tap of col legno strings, the jittery woodwind and skittering percussion. Erika Grimaldi’s Liù is really the true heroine here, given the production’s skewed emphasis: her soprano can take on a hard edge but she caps ‘Signore, ascolta!’ with a melting pianissimo and her arioso ‘Tanto amore, segreto e inconfessato’ is ardently done. Still, it’s a pity that the Slovenian soprano Rebeka Lokar gets so little input into Turandot, as she attacks those murderous high notes in juicy and vibrant voice. De León blows hot and cold: moments of gutsy Puccini-singing alternate with some coarsening of tone and uncertainty of pitch. Marco Filippo Romano’s Ping is in stronger voice than the other two henchmen, while In Sung Sim’s Timur grizzles effectively.