Welsh National Opera’s Turandot – A Second Opinion

Puccini, Turandot: (Revival) Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Wales Millennium Centre, 3.6.2011 (GPu)

Calaf: Gwyn Hughes Jones
Turandot: Anna Shafajinskaia
Liù: Rebecca Evans
Ping: David Stout
Pang: Philip Lloyd Holtam
Pong: Huw Llywelin
Timur: Carlo Malinverno
Emperor Altoum: Paul Gyton
Mandarin/Executioner: Martin Loyd
Prince of Persia: Michael Clifton-Thomson

Conductor – Lothar Koenigs
Director – Christopher Alden
Revival Director – Caroline Chaney
Designer – Paul Steinburg
Lighting Designer – Heather Carson
Lighting Realised by Paul Woodfield
Chorus Master – Stephen Harris

Lyn Kenny has already contributed a perceptive review of the first night of this revival of Christopher Alden’s 1964 production of Turandot. Seeing the production a little later in its Cardiff run, I find myself in agreement with much of what Lyn had to say, especially musically. The problems of balance between soloists and orchestra seem to have been largely resolved – there were only a very few moments when one struggled to hear the singer. Lothar Koenig’s conducting (and the playing of the WNO orchestra) was often almost brutal in its intensity and in its relishing – aptly enough for this production – of the power rather than the subtlety of Puccini’s orchestral writing. The impact was considerable.

The chief soloists acquitted themselves very decently, musically speaking. Gwyn Hughes Jones was generally secure of tone and pitch and was persuasive in all his major arias. It is a shame that the production so often puts him well upstage just when he needs to make most impact. Rebecca Evans was in particularly good voice as a thoroughly dignified and almost absurdly stoic Liù. For reasons to do more with the idiom of the production (and, to a degree, with the libretto) than with Evans herself, it was hard to believe in her as a human being and her beautiful performance in Act III was more moving morally than emotionally, as it were. Anna Shafajinskaia brought a fierce, disciplined power to much of her work as Turandot, but did little (and was perhaps not invited to do much) to convince us of the reality her ‘conversion’ at the end, even if she communicated Turandot’s confused sense of her own identity at this point (it is no accident that so much of this opera hinges on names). The work of the Chorus was throughout magnificent, supple and powerful, at times choric in well-nigh the sense in which one uses the term about Greek Tragedy. The Ping, Pang and Pong of, respectively, David Stout, Philip Lloyd Holtam and Huw Llywelyn were, in an odd way, the most fully human figures on view, imbued as they with an ironic awareness of their situation and its contradictions.

A production of Turandot has to make tricky decisions about idiom. How do you treat an exotic fable, a fairy story? Dress up Turandot in too much chinoiserie and you all too easily invite the audience to assume that it has nothing to do with the reality in which they live (and die). Make the opera too naturalistic, update events (when is the opera set?) or translocate the setting and the folk-tale elements will seem inherently silly (directors often have the same problem with another riddle-drama, The Merchant of Venice). A degree of stylisation is called for, one which has an inner-consistency and one which, ideally, makes clear to an audience that this is a work which is about love and death, about searching and growing, about the achievement (and loss) of identity, about issues fully relevant to their own lives. It seems to me that Christopher Alden’s strategy produces a generally viable stylisation. He rightly sees the opera as also being about power (and the effect of power structures on such themes as those outlined above) and one of his reference points is the rise of Italian fascism (though its totalitarian world is by no means reliant on specifically or exclusively Italian models). There is a nightmare-logic to the dramatic world created, an association justified by the text (“Alba, vieni! / Quest’ incubo dissolvi!” pleads Calaf and “La vita è salva, / l’incubo svanì!” proclaim the chorus in Act III). Alden also sees the work as a fable of psychological development. In an interesting programme interview with Simon Rees he says, for example, that “in this production Liù and Timur are portrayed as ghosts or memories from Calaf’s past, spirits that linger with him as he progresses towards his new kingdom”, suggesting that Liù is his spiritual guide, who leads him step by step through the trials he undergoes”. He suggests, further, that Liù can be “as Calaf’s anima, knowing when to sacrifice herself at the moment when he is ready to go on his course without her”. These are not, of course, the terms in which one necessarily hears/reads the opera; but they do make a particular sense of important aspects of Turandot, and it is a sense articulated by the production’s stylistic choices (for the most part). Its disadvantage is that it tends to rob more than a few of the characters of the contradictoriness of full humanity (insofar as the libretto actually invests them with such contradictoriness) and make them signs in an argument.

There is another dimension to the opera of which the production made me more fully conscious than I have previously been. In Act II (in the wonderful ‘In questa Reggia’) Turandot’s explanation of her attitudes and the reasons for the ways in which she exercises her power are fascinating. She invokes the memory – burning within her – of her ancestor who “ruled / in silence and pure joy, / defying the abhorred tyranny of man”, until she was “conquered and subdued / … dragged away / by a man … her young voice smothered”. It is against the government of men that Turandot stands most firmly; her central affirmation is “Mai nessun m’avrà! / Mai nessun, nessun m’avrà!” (No man shall possess me …). It is stance that the text associates with political tyranny and it is a stance that terrifies most of the men in the opera. Ping, Pang and Pong long for her to “lie powerless in [a] husband’s arms” [my emphasis]. The arc of the work exists to take away her power, to take away the power of this usurping woman – she has to be “tamed”, reduced to a ‘proper’ feminine role. A production that naively celebrates the power of love at the work’s end oversimplifies; it is a strength of this production that it captures the very real ambiguities of the conclusion – a conclusion as ambiguous as that found in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew; indeed the two works, different as they are in many respects, belong in the same tradition.

In short this is a thoughtful production and a production that provokes to thought. It isn’t, of course, simply comfortable or consoling. But it is surely naïve to think that the opera Puccini, Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni (with a bit of help from Franco Alfano) created was ever really so easily reassuring or so generous in its view of human nature?

Glyn Pursglove