Sweden Puccini Turandot. Soloists, Royal Swedish Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Thomas Søndergård (conductor). Royal Swedish Opera, Stockholm, 16.2.2013. Premiere. (GF)
Princess Turandot Nina Stemme
Emperor Altoum Magnus Kyhle
Calaf Riccardo Massi
Timur Michael Schmidberger
Liù Yana Kleyn
Ping Ola Eliasson
Pang Daniel Ralphsson
Pong Niklas Björling Rygert
Mandarin Anton Eriksson
Direction, sets and lighting design: Marco Arturo Marelli
Costumes: Dagmar Niefind-Marelli
Photo: Nina Stemme and Riccardo Massi © Carl Thorborg
Puccini’s last and unfinished opera differs in many ways from his other operas, most importantly insofar as the main characters are not human beings in the real sense of the word but representatives of ideas. Turandot is the symbol of immaculate purity but also – and that’s where she is in the limelight in our and any times – of power through terror. We have seen that throughout history: Gaddafi and Mubarak are just the two of the most recent. Calaf, whose name we all know through the cast list but who is unknown in the opera until the very last minutes, when Turandot ecstatically declares that his name is “Love”, is also inhuman. “Love” may be his aim but not in the Christian sense – or other religious or moral senses. It is the selfish love that is so strong that he is willing to sacrifice his life for the pleasure of conquering the unbeatable enemy, of gaining power, and on his way to victory – the victory that he so gloriously dreams of and depicts in Nessun dorma – he unflinchingly sacrifices Liù, who is the real symbol of unselfish love, and the only character in the opera we – in the audience – love. Old Timur also shows real feelings but is in this cruel play so marginalized that he almost disappears, which he also does after the demise of Liù. For a few seconds he contemplates suicide – he knows where Liù is going – when he picks up Liù’s dagger, but then he throws the weapon away and wanders into the shadows.
I was almost ecstatically impressed by Marco Arturo Marelli’s production of Pelleas et Melisande in Helsinki in April 2012 and this Turandot is a further feather in his hat. The sets are sparse and timeless, possibly the ‘grand stands’ where the common people preside, whether it is the execution of the Prince of Persia or any other public situation, seem to be remnants from a cinema somewhere in the middle of the last century and thus correspond well with Dagmar Niefind-Marelli’s costumes. Turandot and her father the Emperor, both belonging to a higher dimension, are totally timeless. The Emperor, confined to a wheel-chair, is completely white, the Princess wears an ankle-length robe but when she takes it off her chemise is as red as the symbolic blood on her hands on the posters outside the opera house. Calaf wears a simple light suit and his sparsely furnished apartment contains a piano – never played on – a table, a bed and a couple of chairs, probably bought from IKEA in the 1950s. We all thought that Calaf came from out of nowhere but judging from this he is a downright refugee living anonymously in some Beijing suburb. If only through this he becomes more human than almost any Calaf I have encountered.
With very little distractions from the central plot – just as was the case in the Helsinki Pelleas– this performance is, to mix metaphors, a volcano loaded with TNT and the intensity of the drama is hair-raisingly graphic. It had me sitting on the edge of my seat – not very comfortable I have to admit – from the very first chord and I believe that even the most unwilling of husbands being dragged to the opera this evening must have had problems snoozing in their boxes. Such was the energy radiating from all involved, the chorus singing with such frenzy that it seemed their participation was a matter of life or death – which in the third act it actually was. The orchestra must have been sitting just as uncomfortably as I did: theirs was no comfortable leaned back playing and Thomas Søndergård, the Danish conductor who from this season is principal conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, electrified his forces with untiring gusto.
Even Ping, Pang and Pong, whose antics often can seem interminable, were uncommonly entertaining with Ola Eliasson’s Ping truly commanding vocally. And this excellence characterised the whole cast. Anton Eriksson, whom I saw last summer as really nasty Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor at Skäret, here made his marks in the small but important role as the Mandarin. Anton’s baritone has gained further in volume and substance and ah should be ready for bigger roles at the Royal Opera. Veteran Magnus Kyhle was a touching Emperor and as Timur, Calaf’s father, Michael Schmidberger added another fine portrait to his list. Only a few gestures and movements revealed that this was a still rather young man in disguise, but his tone was distinctly an old man’s, and that is good voice-acting.
Godd acting also from the three main characters but first and foremost top-class singing. Nina Stemme in her first Turandot impressed greatly, not only by the volume and the negotiating of the terrible high tessitura, but also her way of scaling down the high tension and show a ‘human’ side of the character. It is true that not even she could avoid some strain in the uppermost regions with some widening of the vibrato but that is a small price to pay for such an all-embracing reading of this fearsome role. Her Minnie in La fanciulla del West a little more than a year ago was an unqualified triumph and with this Turandot she has conquered Puccini’s pinnacle heroines just as much as she already has made Isolde and Brünnhilde her territory.
She had a worthy Calaf as her opponent in Riccardo Massi. Making his operatic debut as recently as 2009 he has rapidly become one of the hottest new Italian tenors, singing on many of the prestige opera houses in Europe and already also sung Radames at the Metropolitan Opera. Tall and handsome he cut an imposing figure on stage and his evenly produced warm toned voice made also Calaf more human than normally. There are many quite good Italian tenors around at the moment and Riccardo Massi could very well go the top of the trade.
But the singer that – possibly – endeared the audience most of all was the diminutive but truly lovely Liù of Yana Kleyn. This young Russian soprano sang Mimi in La bohème and Micaela in Carmen at Skäret in 2010 and 2011 respectively to great acclaim but she has developed further since then and her singing here was a revelation, unforced, unexaggerated and the loveliest pianissimo singing imaginable – and she was also greeted with ovations after her first act aria Signore, ascolta. Turandotis otherwise so intricately composed that there is no room for applause after the other set pieces, which of course is to the advantage of the musical and dramatic continuity.
All in all this was a triumphant Turandot that without hesitation must be labelled ‘world class’. All concerned really deserved the standing ovations and ‘bravos’ after the curtain-fall.