More “New” Clothes for the Emperor – Turandot in Munich

GermanyGermany Puccini: Turandot, Bavarian State Opera, Munich, 17.12.2011 (BM)


Conductor: Zubin Mehta
Director: Carlus Padrissa – La Fura dels Baus
Sets: Roland Olbeter
Costumes: Chu Uroz
Video: Franc Aleu
Lighting: Urs Schönebaum
Chorus Master: Sören Eckhoff


Turandot: Jennifer Wilson
Emperor: Ulrich Reß
Timur: Alexander Tsymbalyuk
Calaf: Marco Berti
Liù: Ekaterina Scherbachenko
Ping: Fabio Previati
Pang : Kevin Conners
Pong : Emanuele D’Aguanno
Mandarin: Levente Molnár


Ekaterina Scherbachenko (Liù), Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Timur), Marco Berti (Calaf), extras copyright: Wilfried Hösl

Granted, the Emperor does not appear on stage naked – all instances of de rigueur nudity, or semblance thereof, are mercifully reserved for good-looking extras. Indeed, he is so elaborately dressed he can hardly move, but there is nothing all that novel or inventive about the cheesy chinoiserie chosen by La Fura dels Baus for their Munich Turandot. The stage is almost constantly inhabited by an anthill of performers, conveying the impression of a more up-to-date and perhaps wackier version of a typical Zefirelli production. The ushers ply the audience with paper 3D glasses so that they can make the most of recurrent and extravagant video projections (bringing to mind Borges’ Aleph at first glance), but these turn out to be little more than a gimmick, and a noisy one at that, causing a loud rustle in the auditorium every time the surtitles announce it is time to put them on. Just as the ice skaters and hockey players of Turandot’s frosty empire, this does little to enhance the storyline or convey to the stage the clever ideas expressed in the program notes – for instance, that China has supposedly rescued Europe from a financial crisis by buying up its debt and is now the new world power, with the ice princess ruling the old continent in ‘big brother’ fashion. This might have worked better if there were any mention of Europe – or Europeans, for that matter – in the libretto.

La Fura’s promotional shows for big corporate customers the world over (the most notorious so far being the Chechen dictator Kadyrov) have been hailed as sensational, so perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that showy effects far outweigh artistic merit here and that despite the supposed avantgarde-ness of it all, we are being given the same old reading of good and bad, black and white, ice and fire, although there is a good deal more to the characters than that. What is disappointing, on the other hand, is that the background of lavish (and yes, sensational!) sets and multitudes of choristers and dancers is so meticulously staged, while the soloists have been largely left to their own devices, the result being that Marco Berti feels free to stand at the edge of the stage and bellow in what looks like an imitation of Paul Potts (and alas, this is not meant to be a joke.) Jennifer Wilson, who sang admirably, was unfairly costumed into a monstrous, looming tower, while Ekaterina Scherbachenko’s Liù suffered most from a lack of coordination between singers and orchestra throwing her exquisite Signor ascolta out of synch, the kind of thing one might expect of a repertoire revival when the principals arrive shortly before opening night. Was Zubin Mehta overly carried away by the on-stage spectacle himself? Be that as it may, Scherbachenko’s lovely soprano defied the goings-on around her, as did Alexander Tsymbaluk in the role of Timur, the absolute musical highlight and main attraction of this evening, radiating dignity and depth of tone from his orange wheelchair. Every time he sang, one wished the composer had given his character a bigger role, and it was only fitting that in this ‘Toscanini Version’ – what a relief not to have to endure the tacky Alfano-ending for once – his voice is virtually the last we hear before the curtain falls after the death of Liù, and of Puccini, who was unable to finish the score. This ‘new’ production of his last opera is a crowd-pleaser well worth seeing, but not always entirely worth hearing. The good news is that the latter could no doubt easily be improved on.

Bettina Mara