An Extra Riddle: Turandot in Zurich

21/11/2011

Puccini, TurandotSoloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Zurich Opera / Massimo Zanetti (conductor) Zurich, 18.11.2011. (JR)

Cast:

Turandot: Martina Serafin
Liù: Isabel Rey
Calaf: José Cura
Timur: Pavel Daniluk
Ping: Kresimir Strazanac
Pang: Andreas Winkler
Pong: Boguslaw Bidzinski
Altoum/Prince of Persia: Miroslav Christoff
Mandarin: Valeriy Murga
Pu-Tin-Pao: Roberto Angeletti
Second executioner: Sacha Wacker

Production:

Original Production: Giancarlo del Monaco
Stage Director: Claudia Blersch
Set Designer and Costumes: Peter Sykora
Lighting: Hans-Rudolf Kunz
Chorus Master: Jürg Hämmerli

Turandot in Zurich
(c) Zurich Opera

Zurich Opera has revived a thought-provoking, incisive and intriguing production by Giancarlo del Monaco of Turandot, last seen here in 2006, and a co-production shared with Shanghai Opera. The populace of Peking, cowering under the cruel yoke of Princess Turandot, are authentically set in medieval times; they wear grey faceless smocks and their faces are deathly pale and featureless. The Emperor’s servants wear weird and wonderful medieval traditional Chinese costumes, though some of the headgear did resemble TV aerials. The set is bland: huge greenish blocks, which are supposed to resemble jade, slide across the stage, representing the front of Turandot’s palace. In come Calaf, his father Timur and servant-girl Liù from another age, all in modern dress: Calaf with sunglasses, leather jacket and smoking. All great fun for the Costume Department.

The mixing of the eras does not become much clearer when Calaf seeks to answer the three riddles with the help of a laptop. This appears just when Turandot is asking her first riddle, a moment of high drama in the opera spoilt by inevitable giggles from the audience as Calaf resorts to Google. Only at the very end of the opera, in Act 3, when Calaf and Turandot have become a loving couple, does the producer reveal the answer to his own riddle: in a coup de theatre, del Monaco slides away the Middle Ages to reveal the populace in modern-day Western garb, Turandot in a red ball gown having a celebratory dinner with champagne (served by Ping, Pang and Pong) overlooking the night-time skyline of present-day Shanghai. Their lives have been transformed, as has China.

Musically, all was not well, sadly, on this opening night. Insufficient rehearsal time had been allowed so that chorus and orchestra were out of sorts and out of synch; the opera contains many gear changes and the transitions were messy. Conductor Massimo Zanetti, very well-versed in Italian opera, was clearly more than up to the task, as was the orchestra (particularly the percussion section with its array of exotic gongs, tam-tam and glockenspiel), so failings can only be put down to rehearsal time.

José Cura was frequently throaty and too often under the note. He saved himself for the top A and B flat of “Nessun dorma”. A few members of the audience ecstatically applauded while he held the note long and hard – sadly they were not brought before Turandot’s executioners. Martina Serafin was making her debut as Turandot and was most impressive, her vocal skills, steely and accurate, matching her acting skills. Ukranian Pavel Daniluk as Timur seemed to have stepped out of Boris; his Italian diction let him down and his Russian tone was inappropriate for this part. Liù was tenderly sung by Spanish soprano Isabel Rey. The programme notes revealed that, like Liù, Puccini’s maid had fallen in love with the composer and, her love being unrequited, committed suicide.

The commedia dell’arte trio of Ping, Pang and Pong were a variable bunch: a fine Ping (Kresimir Strazanac), a decent Pang (Andreas Winkler) but a mainly inaudible Pong (Boguslav Bidzinski). Valeriy Murga’s Mandarin setting the scene at the outset of the opera lacked both vocal and visual presence; his lack of authoritativeness could be blamed on being placed backstage in an opening in the Emperor’s Castle. Miroslav Christoff made a forthright Emperor.

Further performances of this revival of an innovative production will surely improve as the series progresses.

John Rhodes

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