Bregenz Festival: A Spectacle on the Shore of Lake Constance

AustriaAustria  Puccini, Turandot: Soloists, Chorus of the Prague Philharmonic, Bregenz Festival Chorus, Childrens’ Choir of the Music School of Bregenz, Paolo Carignani (conductor), Festival Lakeside, Bregenz, 8.8.2015 (JR)

Turandot Bregenz copyright Karl Forster
Turandot Bregenz copyright Karl Forster

Turandot Erika Sunnegardh
Altoum Christophe Mortagne
Timur Dimitry Ivashchenko
Calaf Rafael Rojas
Liu Marjukka Tepponen
Ping Thomas Oliemans
Pang Peter Marsh
Pong Kyungho Kim
A mandarin Yasushi Hirano

Producer/Set Marco Arturo Marelli
Costumes Constance Hoffmann
Lighting Davy Cunningham
Chorusmasters Lukas Vasilek, Benjamin Lack
Dramaturgy Olaf A. Schmitt

“Where exactly is Bregenz?” I hear you ask. Well, Bregenz is virtually Austria’s only town on Lake Constance (or the Bodensee as locals call it), one of Europe’s largest lakes. It’s principally a tourist area though the German town of Friedrichshafen has some industry (Zeppelin) and Konstanz has a university. The lake forms part of the border between Germany, Switzerland and Austria and the River Rhine flows in one end and out the other. Bregenz enjoys the immediate backdrop of the Alps.

Bregenz is the capital of the small mountainous Austrian province of Vorarlberg and is a pretty but unassuming town. It is known now chiefly for its annual summer music festival and in particular its open-air opera performances on a huge stage in the lake. Forgive the geography lesson.

David Pountney has been the Festival’s artistic director for the last 12 years but he has moved on to Welsh National Opera. His replacement is Elisabeth Sobotka who has worked at the Salzburg Festival and in Vienna at the State Opera, and for the last few years as Head of the opera in Graz. Her tenure has got off to a propitious start.

The audience (up to 7,000) sits entirely in the open on hard, very hard plastic chairs. Everyone has the benefit of good sight lines, the seating being steeply raked. Sound comes from 59 speakers dotted round the audience. The conductor, orchestra and chorus are housed behind the audience in the Festspielhaus: the audience only catch glimpses of them on screens to the left and right of the stage, the chorus all being non-singing extras. At times I found the images of a harpist, violinist and the conductor distracting; at other times it helped to remind one that was one at a live opera performance rather than watching a film.

The Festival puts on this summer, with three different casts, 19 performances of “Turandot” (with some other concerts and musical events, including this season two indoor performances of “The Tales of Hoffmann”). Big names are rarely attracted to Bregenz. The singers at the performance I attended were all wholly competent, did no damage, but none particularly impressed or thrilled vocally. All have sung their roles at various opera houses round Europe.

Rafael Rojas, a Mexican tenor, sang a forceful “Nessun dorma” but persistently sang under the note in his lower register. Dressed as Puccini himself, he looked decades too old to convincingly woo Princess Turandot. Ping, Pang and Pong (a well sung trio) were adorned in richly colourful costumes and were well choreographed. Marjukka Tepponen as Liu nearly stole the show (as Liu often does in this opera) singing a very tender “Signor, ascolta”. Erika Sunnegardh was not steely enough for the title role. The chorus was rich and powerful and mostly on cue.

Lighting was admirable, especially the illumination of the terracotta army. The sound system impressed, although I would have liked the volume turned up a bit more at the climaxes. Occasionally a singer’s voice was disembowelled, for example, from the top of the Great Wall, the messenger of Peking’s voice came from somewhere well below his feet.

Diction, on the whole, was poor; I was not always clear what language they were singing in. Firm-voiced Christophe Mortagne as the Emperor (in a wheelchair) was a notable exception (he is a trained actor as well as singer).

The multi-layered production had references to Puccini’s life: listening as the opera opens to Chinese themes on a music-box, his affair with a singer from the opera Turandot, his car accident leaving him in a wheelchair, his death in hospital. Calaf spends some of the opera on a side stage which is supposed to resemble Puccini’s house with bed and piano (but no ashtray – he was a chain smoker and died of throat cancer). The chorus were split into the Establishment, in 1920s furs and snappy suits, and the working class in grey Mao-style industrial clothing.

The production had some wonderful touches: Turandot herself glides into view on the lake on a lantern-adorned barge; the Prince of Persia is rowed in from the other direction, armed by black leather-clad guards, to have his head chopped off and his torso thrown into the lake with a splosh – and a giggle from the audience – from the top of the Great Wall. Acting throughout was wooden, but no-one cared as all eyes were on the magnificent spectacle which the producer, Marco Marelli, unfurled before our eyes: fire-throwers, illuminated lanterns and dragons, kung-fu dancers, a giant revolving stage, the lid of which lifted up to become a video screen. The backdrop was the Great Wall of China, part of which crumbled at the beginning of the opera to reveal the terracotta army. The programme told us that 29,000 bricks and planks had been used, the weight of the towers, the number of underwater lights. At the end, no fireworks but illuminated water sprays (8 of them spraying water 28 metres into the air, 900 litres of water every minute).

The orchestra (the Wiener Symphoniker) played well, Carignani conducted with the right degree of energy and sensitivity. I was left underwhelmed musically by Alfano’s ending (Puccini died having written the scene with Liu’s death leaving Franco Alfano to finish the opera).

So, to sum up, an entertaining way to spend a balmy (dry) summer’s evening in a magical setting, watching the twinkling lights of Constance in the distance and lake steamers gliding by. Incidentally, if it does rain a bit, they rent out capes and umbrellas; if it rains a lot and they have to abandon the performance, they move those with higher-price seats into the Festspielhaus and carry on, whilst the hoi polloi receive vouchers for another performance. Seat prices are well below the levels of Glyndebourne and Salzburg – but they aim at quite a different audience. Dress code was casual and many had come prepared for a light shower of rain. It all starts at nine o’clock when it gets dark so there’s time for a Wiener schnitzel and apricot dumplings in one of the local hostelries in town.

Some words for the Festival Management: could you not give every member of the audience a short synopsis, which should also be in English (as should be the surtitles)? With no interval (for logistical reasons) it’s a long evening, which brings me to the seats: I should have heeded the announcements that cushions were available for hire, as by the end of the opera my neighbour and I were in considerable pain (and I have endured Bayreuth in the days before cushions were invented). Please therefore do provide everyone with a cushion.

The Festival will revive “Turandot” next summer, with 22 performances from 21st July to 21st August and if you are anywhere in the area, do go and see the show -and expect to be enthralled, if not moved. And take a cushion.

John Rhodes

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