Livermore’s new Turandot is in an opium haze at Milan’s La Scala as Netrebko and Eyvazov are victorious

ItalyItaly Puccini, Turandot: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan / Michele Gamba (conductor). Broadcast live (directed by Anna Gettel) from La Scala, Milan, 4.7.2024. (JPr)

Davide Livermore’s production of Turandot Act I © Teatro alla Scala / Brescia e Amisano

Giacomo Puccini died, only 65, in November 1924 and in April 1926 Turandot – which was left unfinished on his death – premiered at Milan’s La Scala. Fast-forward 98 years and the composer’s premature death was commemorated by Davide Livermore’s new production of Turandot at that very same opera house.

One thing to say about this new Turandot is that it is never static or – with respect – slightly boring in the manner of Robert Wilson’s production in Paris (review here). Wilson had a stork flying at the point it is mentioned singing in Act I and Livermore now shows us three brought on the stage. Even though Livermore’s mise-en-scène appears entirely different of course, I believe it has been strongly influenced by the look of Andrei Serban’s Covent Garden Turandot (review here) now forty years old and due to be revived again there next season.

For me an opium haze – right from the beginning – hangs heavy over all that we see. As the Mandarin sings there is a wafting figure which we will understand is Princess Lo-u-Ling at the top of a central staircase. We learn about her in Turandot’s ‘In questa reggia’; she was raped and murdered by a foreign prince, and this has made the princess herself reject all men offering marriage and she will only submit to the someone who solves her three riddles. Significantly Turandot sings of Lo-u-Ling living in her, and indeed she – in the form of that spectral figure – shadows Turandot throughout singing silently along with her until she seems to be exorcised near the end. Occasionally – like the stork – things are literal on the stage such as when Liù sings her third act ‘Tu che di gel sei cinta’ about the icy princess and it snows.

When there is any mention of executions or blood D-Wok’s video shows it dripping down at the back and the stage is bathed in red. Also, the leitmotif of this Turandot a huge – often rotating – moon at the centre of the stage which can turn into a ‘blood’ one. Otherwise, it will be transparent with the executioner (Pu-Tin-Pao) – now a female dancer – fluttering within it, or there appears to be flowers or white veils within the ‘moon’, or is that more opium smoke? Another figure who gets more stage time is the Prince of Persia who is abused and stripped naked by the people of old Peking. (Apparently according to Livermore, the Prince of Persia is the ‘proud voice’ of Calaf’s ego.)

The three-dimensional set (with a hotel and the neon sign ‘Amour’ at one side), together with the images often shown at the back, take us to Peking in the second half of the twentieth century I suspect. And when Turandot is sung about she appears to inhabit a cherry blossom filled realm which comes down from the flies.

The minsters Ping, Pang and Pong initially appear dressed as Calaf and each has a mask of his face and are probably just in his head at this point, but they are real enough when in the opium den/brothel at the opening of Act II which includes some Tai Chi and ends with a conga line. Turandot’s entourage in pastel kimonos (a form of dress which actually originated in China) rise up from below the stage whilst the two princesses (Turandot and Lo-u-Ling) come down from above. Turandot is costumed as if Anna Netrebko was due at a Milan Fashion Week Gala after the performance. Featuring at the end of this act is a life-sized Perspex puppet horse – just as in War Horse – that we first saw in Act I and will reappear at the conclusion of the opera. What this represents – as for much of Livermore’s phantasmagorical imagery – must remain unexplained on this first viewing.

Calaf (Yusif Eyvazov), Liù (Rosa Feola), Turandot (Anna Netrebko), Pu-Tin-Pao and Lo-u-Ling © Teatro alla Scala / Brescia e Amisano

As the third act begins against a starscape, I suspect it is the secret police and their heavies who are terrorising the people of Peking as they trying to discover the foreign prince’s name (the one riddle he has set Turandot after answering her three). Eventually Liù the slave-girl accompanying Calaf’s blind father, Timur, having revealed the name they are after as ‘l’amour’ (‘love’) she sacrifices herself by running into Calaf’s sword. An anguished Timur calls out for her spirit to revenge her death and vows to follow her into ‘the night which knows no dawn’.

At the 1926 premiere Toscanini stopped conducting after Liù’s death turning to the audience saying, ‘Here the opera ends, because the Maestro died’. Indeed, that was the gist of the words under the portrait of Puccini projected on the ‘moon’ before there was a minute’s silence with the cast lined up at the front of the stage holding, like the entire audience, small LED tealights. This was quite affecting actually! The opera then rushed through the ‘traditional’ Siegfried-esque completion by Franco Alfano (as ‘edited’ by Toscanini) when Calaf’s passion overcomes Turandot’s protestations and as the people sing in praise of the two lovers (‘O sole! Vita! Eternità!’) it all ends with a cherry blossom tree in the globe and a shower of red confetti.

It was a fine cast: Adriano Gramigni was a resonant Mandarin; Rosa Feola was a passionate and deeply touching Liù and sang an exquisitely shaped ‘Signore ascolta’; Vitalij Kowaljow was grave and sonorous as a scenery-chewing Timur; singing the three ministers, Sung-Hwan Damien Park, Chuan Wang and Jinxu Xiahou, brought more personality to Ping, Pang and Pong than sometimes with see; and veteran tenor Raúl Giménez, in his singing and acting, portrayed a less enfeebled Emperor Altoum than we are used to.

Undoubtedly Anna Netrebko’s Turandot – grounded in some dark chest notes – took a few minutes to warm up during ‘In questa reggia’ which was not helped by having to negotiate some perilously stairs. Nevertheless, Netrebko was mighty impressive through to the end of the opera; requisitely steely, sturdy and secure throughout her range, she was not afraid to respect the music and emphasise the warmth and beauty of her sound in some more nuanced passages. Equally more than a can belto singer – though some reviewers would have you believe otherwise – Yusif Eyvasov is possibly as good a Calaf as you can hear today. He is not the greatest actor but sings strongly with burnished, ringing tone and, again, a certain refinement where the composer demands its. His singer-friendly conductor, Michele Gamba, however, did indulge him with a long-held – Bonisolli-like and crowd-pleasing – final ‘Vin-CEEEEEE-rò! Although Netrebko and Eyvasov are now separated in life they still appear to have great chemistry onstage.

Heard through loudspeakers the other vocal stars of this performance were the chorus who were also given some complex movement over three acts as they were rarely still. The orchestra responded well to their conductor and sounded on top form: Gamba revealed all the colours of Puccini’s most exotic score without the account every going beyond a solid and not particularly insightful one.

Jim Pritchard

Featured Image: Calaf (Yusif Eyvazov), Lo-u-Ling, and Turandot (Anna Netrebko) © Teatro alla Scala / Brescia e Amisano

Staging – Davide Livermore
Sets – Eleonora Peronetti, Paolo Gep Cucco, Davide Livermore
Costumes – Mariana Fracasso
Lights – Antonio Castro
Video – D-Wok
Chorus master – Alberto Malazzi

Princess Turandot – Anna Netrebko
The Emperor Altoum – Raúl Giménez
Timur – Vitalij Kowaljow
The Unknown Prince (Calaf) – Yusif Eyvazov
Liù – Rosa Feola
Ping – Sung-Hwan Damien Park
Pang  – Chuan Wang
Pong  – Jinxu Xiahou
A Mandarin – Adriano Gramigni
Handmaid I – Silvia Spruzzola
Handmaid II – Vittoria Vimercati
The Prince of Persia – Haiyang Guo

1 thought on “Livermore’s new <i>Turandot</i> is in an opium haze at Milan’s La Scala as Netrebko and Eyvazov are victorious”

  1. Sorry, the Calaf of YE is the worst thing I ever heard from him. Loud belting without any characterisation he kept ff throughout the performance. Not even the aria to Liù had any feeling of sorrow…. Any tenor is better in that role (perhaps not that loud…).
    AN is lucky to have a beautiful voice, but her performance (TV transmission) lacked personality too.
    A really unpleasant Turandot!

    S&H replies: Let’s agree to disagree, of course that was my opinion as heard through loudspeakers – of course I have heard many Calafs in the past including the great (!) Franco Bonisolli – and I hope to hear YE live in coming days and will report again on his voice then.


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