Nina Stemme impresses as Turandot in Dalhalla

SwedenSweden Giacomo PUCCINI Turandot: Soloists, Chorus, Dalasinfoniettan, Gävle Symphony Orchestra, Tobias Ringborg (conductor), Dalhalla 8.8.2015 (GF)


Director – Bengt Gomér
Projection Design – Visual Relief
Costume Design – Bente Rolandsdotter
Make up artist – Linda Gonçalves
Choreography – Åsa N Åström and Jan Åström
Light Design – Ellen Ruge
Sound Design – Bengt Park
Chorus Master – David Lundblad


Turandot – Nina Stemme
Emperor Altoum – Torbjörn Lillieqvist
Timur – Johan Schinkler
Liù – Meeta Raval
Ping – Fredrik Zetterström
Pang – Göran Eliasson
Pong – Niklas Björling Rygert
A Mandarin – Luthando Qave
The Prince of Persia – Edgar Modin

The outdoor arena Dalhalla in the midst of the forest north of Lake Siljan in Central Sweden, has deservedly become world famous for its acoustics, for its exotic setting with the steep, rough granite walls and the mysterious blue-green lake surrounding the stage. To mount operas there is both a privilege and a challenge. Bengt Gomér, internationally renowned as a set designer, here made his debut as director, and he managed to avoid several pitfalls that such a vast stage and large auditorium can involve. This was not the premiere for Turandot in Dalhalla; almost to the day ten years ago I saw it with the ensemble from the Bolshoi Opera in Moscow, who were homeless after their house had been closed down for renovation. They brought their own production which, thanks to the size of the Dalhalla stage, fitted very well with only minor adjustments. Bengt Gomér could start from scratch and create his tailor-made interpretation of the ancient saga, where the two main characters are rather one-dimensional figures possessed of fixed ideas: Turandot’s maniac revenge for something that happened many generations ago, Calaf’s wish to win this unapproachable ice-cold woman. The ‘love’ that eventually unites them is the message that Liù – a warm human being with true human feelings – delivers before she takes her life. In Luciano Berio’s new finale, composed in 2001, which is used here, this message can settle gradually – in the Alfano ending it’s like a bolt from the sky. I believe this was something that Puccini had wanted but never had time to solve. Whether Berio’s conclusion is musically better and will stand the test of time, is a moot point. I saw one of the earliest European productions, at the Berlin State Opera in 2003 and wasn’t very convinced then and am still in doubt. Bengt Gomér points out in the programme commentary that Puccini was strongly fascinated by Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and in the sketches for the music after Liù’s death he wrote ‘E poi Tristano’ – ‘And then Tristan’, arguably implying that he wanted the end of the opera to be Liù’s Liebestod. And in Berio’s music there are references to Wagner. I still feel this end as an anti-climax …

To employ Berio’s ending is one example of rethinking or brushing up the opera – this has happened only once in Scandinavia before, in 2005 at Norrlandsoperan – also with Tobias Ringborg as conductor. And there are many interesting details in the direction, sometimes bringing about aha-reactions. Timur, for example, has always been depicted as blind. Why? says Bengt Gomér, is this indicated in the libretto? No, and thus Timur sees in this production. The scene with the three riddles takes place at a table, Turandot and Calaf sitting opposite each other, like a cross-examination.  The main chorus are not on stage from the beginning – instead the Mandarin turns directly to the audience with his Popolo di Pekino. We are the people. The chorus makes their entrance a bit later, an oppressed group of anonymous people in black quilted jackets – we envied them when the chill came creeping down into the arena towards midnight. And they came through the audience, slowly, then wading barefooted through the shallow water that separates the stage from the audience. Later they crawled across the stage, humble and humiliated.

Like so many other directors, Gomér is fascinated by the possibilities to employ the vast surrounding spaces and distinctive features of Dalhalla. He places a second group of brass and percussion by the side of the audience (the Bolshoi production did the same though they chose another cliff ledge), the beheading of the Persian Prince takes place in the darkness above the arena and the body falls with a splash into the water. When after Liù’s death Timur wanders off the stage – towards his own death – he is picked up by a rowing-boat, bringing him to the other side ‘to rest beside [Liù] in the night which knows no dawn!’– like Charon!

Visual Relief’s projections on the walls of the arena tie together the ancient past of the story with the present time and enhance the sense of a Gesamtkunstwerk. And even that trio Ping, Pang and Pong, who can be quite tiresome, add something symbolically and entertaining when they in the opening of act II, take off their red garments, paint the floor green (to wipe out the bloodstains from the recent beheading?) and then pleasurably slide about in the paint. That the orchestra nowadays invariably is placed fully visibly at the back of the stage is obviously a concession to compensate for the deterioration of the acoustics that was a result of the new stage-building.

It goes without saying that the visual aspects – in particular with a grand opera like Turandot – are important, so full marks for Bengt Gomér and his team. The musical side is also well catered for in Dalhalla. Dalasinfoniettan and Gävle Symfoniorkester work together regularly and are by now closely united and under the inspiring leadership of Tobias Ringborg they made the most of Puccini´s colourful score. Even more impressive was the singing of the choruses, made up of primarily amateurs, but exceedingly experienced singers from the region. Chorus Master David Lundblad has made a great job!

Experience en masse was also to be found among the soloists. Fredrik Zetterström’s Ping and his two fellow-bureaucrats Göran Eliasson (Pang) and Niklas Björling Rygert (Pong) are great character actors and Torbjörn Lilliequist was a characterful Emperor. The young South-African baritone Luthando Qave, a singer I have praised in much bigger roles, was a sonorous Mandarin. Johan Schinkler’s mighty basso cantante filled the arena with euphony and I only wished Timur had been a much bigger part. The young British soprano Meeta Raval was a sensitive Liù and she made the most of her two arias, sung with silvery tone. Lars Cleveman occasionally sounds worn these days and his Nessun dorma wasn’t a hit but he was still a strong Calaf. The title role is one of the shortest in any opera – if we just count how many notes she has to sing. But those she has to sing are almost throughout located to the highest register and the role is generally regarded as one of the most strenuous anywhere. Nina Stemme sang the role at the Stockholm Royal Opera a couple of years ago, very successfully, but I think she was even better in Dalhalla. Her intensity, her identification with the role and her physical action made this one of the most complete impersonations of the icy princess. It was a glorious reading that crowned a production that must count among the most memorable in the former limestone quarry. An audience of close to 3,000 enthusiasts, hailed Nina Stemme and the rest of the performers with standing ovations.

Göran Forsling

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