Calaf Solves Turandot’s Riddles in Zurich With Aid From Google

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Puccini, Turandot: Soloists and chorus of Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich conductor Alexander Joel, Zurich Opera  12.12.2015. (JR)


Producer – Giancarlo del Monaco
Dramaturgy – Claudia Bersch
Set and costumes – Peter Sykora
Lighting – Hans-Rudolf Kunz
Chorus-master- Jürg Hämmerli


Turandot – Nina Stemme
Liù – Alexandra Tarcineru
Calaf – Riccardo Massi
Timur – Wenwei Zhang
Ping – Ivan Thirion
Pang – Dmitry Ivanchey
Pong – Pavel Petrov
Altoum – Martin Zysset
Mandarin – Oliver Widmer
Principe di Persia – Pavel Petrov

Zurich Opera have, once again, revived this intelligent 2006 del Monaco co-production (with Shanghai Opera) of Turandot, last seen here in 2012. Perhaps, like the colourful productions at the Met and Covent Garden, this production is set to run and run. It certainly still (almost) fills the theatre at Christmas time.

Calaf, his father Timur and his maid Liu are in ostensibly modern dress and appear to have time-travelled back to ancient and Imperial China, into a different age, a different culture. When the curtain opens, Calaf is lying on the stage, bathed in a laser-like green light, in the shape of an inverted cone – it seems he has been beamed down like Scottie. The backdrop is an outside wall of the Emperor’s castle, in dark green blocks of simulated jade. Calaf wears a black leather jacket and could have stepped in off the streets of modern-day Lucca. Liù wears a blue raincoat, trousers and heels (and for the observant, with a suitcase, also appears to be carrying a laptop case), Timur a long coat and sunglasses (he is blind).  The ancient headgear on display for Turandot and her Ministers had me rather baffled – Turandot’s tie-hanger and the other aerial-like contraptions look like they could receive satellite TV.  The rest of the cast are dressed in traditional colourless costumes of the period; the chorus is faceless, anonymous, rising from below the stage as from Dante’s Inferno.

The laptop comes out when Turandot starts asking her riddles: presumably Calaf uses Google or Wikipedia to search the sources and find the answers. This elicits giggles from the audience at a time of what should be high tension in the opera, an unwelcome, if admittedly witty, distraction. (My children are not allowed computers when taking their school tests but the ancient Chinese presumably do not seem to know what computers are  – despite making most of the worlds’ computers centuries later – and fail to object to blatant cheating).

The mixing-up of the eras becomes clear right at the end of Act 3, after Turandot and Calaf have declared their mutual love, when the Emperor’s castle is swept away to reveal the glittering night-time skyline of modern-day Shanghai. Calaf and Turandot, now in red shimmering ball-gown, settle down for a sumptuous dinner on the Bund with champagne served up by Ping, Pang and Pong dressed as waiters and chef. China, as we know, has moved on.

Three years ago we heard Martina Serafin as Turandot and a rather throaty José Cura as Calaf. This run of performances features Nina Stemme and Riccardo Massi in these roles, both described by my fellow critic in Stockholm a few years as “knock-out”. He was right. Stemme is impressive across the board; firm and steely where required, top notes riding effortlessly over chorus and orchestra. Massi was inaudible at first, the orchestra was a notch too loud and he was probably reserving his voice for later in the opera. His “Nessun dorma” was perfectly executed. He has a strong tenor voice; acting skills and character in the voice still have time to develop.

Everyone was clearly and rightly taken by the Liù of Alexandra Tarcineru, not perhaps as angelic and pure as other Liù’s of the past, but her creamy soprano and first-rate acting skills stole the show (as Liù’s often do). There is no hint of evil in her character and she suffers the ultimate sacrifice (Puccini’s own maid fell in love with him and committed suicide – no coincidence then that Puccini should reserve some of the most beautiful music in this opera for Liù).

Ping, Pang and Pong, the comedic Ministers (who also can administer torture when called upon by their boss to do so) were evenly matched and made a fine trio. I particularly liked the warm baritone of Ivan Thirion. Martin Zysset made a dependable Emperor Altoum, impressive when unaccompanied by the orchestra. I felt the Mandarin, especially at the outset when set up high in the Castle walls, was not loud enough – I would prefer a stronger singer, after all he has to announce the plot to the audience and the gathered Chinese populace without the aid of microphones.

The Chorus were in magnificent form throughout – especially in the Moon Chorus – after overcoming some initial ensemble problems (when facing away from the conductor). Alexander Joel was in full and impressive command of the score and elicited some fine playing from the Philharmonia Zurich, especially the busy percussion section. I have never heard the side drum so prominent.

What a shame Puccini never finished this magnificent opera, cited by many as their favourite Puccini opera. Toscanini got Puccini’s composition pupil, Franco Alfano, to finish it – it does rather sound like Rodgers and Hammerstein. When Alfano asked Toscanini what he thought Puccini would have said about the ending, Toscanini is supposed to have said, “Puccini would have come from backstage and smacked me”. At the premiere Toscanini failed to use the Alfano ending, stopping the performance at the point where Puccini died and announcing this to the audience, who then left in silence. This Zurich performance, with Alfano ending, received copious applause.

John Rhodes

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