The ageless Gregory Kunde leads an outstanding Turandot in Hamburg

GermanyGermany Puccini, Turandot: Soloists, Chorus, Extra and Children’s chorus of Hamburg State Opera, Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg / Daniele Callegari (conductor). Hamburg State Opera, 31.3.2024. (DM-D)

Hamburg State Opera’s Turandot © Hans Jörg Michel

Director – Yona Kim
Stage design – Christian Schmitt
Costume design – Falk Bauer
Lighting design – Reinhard Traub
Video – Philip Bussmann
Movement coach – Ramses Sigl
Dramaturgy – Angela Beuerle
Chorus director – Eberhard Friedrich
Director of ‘Alsterspatzen’ (childrens’ and youth chorus) – Luiz de Godoy

Turandot – Ewa Plonka
Calaf – Gregory Kunde
Liù – Andriana Gonzáles
Timur – Liang Li
Ping – Fredric Mörth
Pang – Daniel Kluge
Pong – Florian Panzieri
Altoum – Jürgen Sacher
A Mandarin – Chao Deng

As a part of Hamburg State Opera’s 2024 Italian Opera Weeks, this performance was a revival of the original 2022 production directed by Yona Kim. Daniele Callegari replaced Evelino Pidò as conductor. The production emphasised the dark aspects of the plot, leaving little room for hope or a happy ending. Turandot is traumatised by her history to the extent that she is unable to genuinely receive and live love. She accepts Calaf formally, but ultimately stabs him to death. The staging supported this bleak interpretation of the plot.

Christian Schmidt created a black space with a set of steps at the centre, leading up to a raised level obscured by a black curtain. That curtain opened and closed in different patterns to reveal different spaces behind, precisely defined in terms of height and width, showing parts of the imperial palace. Those spaces were clearly identifiable as to their function, such as state meeting room or private bedroom. They all gave the idea of vast spaces, of emptiness, of intended grandeur – and they all ultimately lacked heart, atmosphere, beauty. The courtiers – the people – were dressed in bland black, with a nod to the Chinese setting. Some faces were made up to suggest Beijing Opera, something generically ‘Chinese’. The video created by Philip Bussmann conveyed images of Chinese people and military. The text of the riddles and the answers were lowered from the fly tower on white banners.

The plot of Turandot is highly emotional and melodramatic even for Italian opera, and many conductors have been tempted to emphasise, at the expense of subtlety, the ‘big sounds’ of the music Puccini composed to reflect those tumultuous emotions. Daniele Callegari avoided any temptation towards pompousness, offering instead a very differentiated reading of the score. He drew a meaningful flow of ups and downs from the orchestra, which made the music rhythmically engaging. His support of the singers was admirable. It was a challenging opera for the singers and not only of the major roles, because despite all nuances of the music that Callegari was able to emphasise, much of the singing needed to be loud. Here it was at least loud with – and not against – the orchestra.

Ewa Plonka brought her experience developed in the Italian repertory to the role, rather than making Turandot an excursion into the Italian genre from a career otherwise dominated by Wagner. Her singing was strong, well able to ride above orchestra and chorus, and never shrill or on edge: rather, the voice sounded rounded, warm and well-balanced across registers and volume. Her vibrato was clean and pleasant.

Gregory Kunde (Calaf) in Hamburg State Opera’s Turandot © Hans Jörg Michel

Gregory Kunde sang Calaf. It is difficult to believe that he is 70 years old. There were absolutely no signs of vocal wear and tear. The voice sounded consistently fresh throughout. His experience and successes with heavier roles such as Otello or Peter Grimes worked in his favour. Kunde clearly enjoyed every moment of his role, particularly relishing his ability to sustain important notes for a long time, not only the high B in ‘Nessun dorma’.

Adriana González was a moving Liù, her voice mellow, with dependable volume and excitingly undulating, lingering top notes. The smaller roles were cast with more than competent singers, and Kim brought appropriate directorial attention to them as well. Chao Deng was convincing as the Mandarin, Jürgen Sacher played the Emperor Altoum as an old man; however, it was through his strong voice that he demonstrated his character’s remaining authority. Liang Li gave a solid portrayal of Timur with his sonorous, well-focused bass.

In some productions, the three ministers, Ping, Pang and Pong come across as clowns; here, they were allowed a certain level of individuality. As a group, they developed from mildly funny characters to the main perpetrators of Liù’s cruel torture (so their humour appeared sinister with hindsight). Fredric Mörth (Ping), Daniel Kluge (Pang) and Florian Panzieri (Pong) made the most of the music composed for their characters. The audience greeted the performance with well justified standing ovations.

Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe

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