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Turandot

BREGENZ
Bregenzer Festspiele
8/1/15

MY ENDURING MEMORY of the Bregenzer Festspiele’s new Turandot is water. Not only the water surrounding the famous Seebühne, a marvel of stagecraft moored to Lake Constance, but also the rain—sometimes a drizzle, sometimes torrential—falling steadily on the audience for the entire performance. Many outdoor opera festivals cancel their performances in case of inclement weather, but in Bregenz the show must go on. And so on it goes. Evidently the festival doesn’t have an “Act of God” clause written into its insurance policy, or the stakes are simply too high to cancel one of their consistently sold-out performances. In either event, the orchestra and chorus was safely ensconced inside the adjoining Festspielhaus, and visible via large monitors that flanked the stadium seating for nearly 7,000 very wet spectators. 

Despite the trying conditions, a determined cast and crew managed to pull off splashy (no pun intended) feats of theatrical wizardry and vocal brilliance. Marco Arturo Marelli’s lavish production scored very highly on the “wow” scale. It was dominated by a 230-foot-long replica of the Great Wall of China that ran the length of the Seebühne. The other main set piece was the blood-streaked cylinder that served as a platform for much of the drama, and raised, lowered, rotated and was used often lit up with projections of Chinese masks, imperial emblems or Communist-style insignias. Another inspired touch was the army of terra cotta soldiers emerging from the sea and ascending skyward at the back of the stage. Only one set element stood out for its comparative drabness: a replica of Giacomo Puccini’s bedroom in blue that jutted out towards the audience. Occasionally, Calaf would step down to this set, sit on the bed or by the piano or clutch the score of Turandot to his breast, while a few nurses scurried about. It was the closest Marelli’s staging came to being guided by a concept, rather than simply a “more is more” aesthetic—the identification between the dying composer and the opera’s hero, Calaf, who must answer the icy Turandot’s riddles on pain of death. As a point of entry for the work, it was intriguing, although the idea remained underdeveloped amid all the eye-candy on offer. 

Chinese lanterns and dragons, martial artists and fire jugglers were just the beginning. At one point, a portion of the Great Wall tumbled down; the condemned Persian prince was ferried to his execution and, the sentence carried out, his bloody head held aloft from a tower, while his body splashed into the waters below. Turandot also made her entrance from an elaborately shrouded boat, which sailed precariously towards the stage in the choppy waters; enormous scrolls fluttered down from the Great Wall proclaiming—in Chinese calligraphy—the answers to Turandot’s riddles that Calaf correctly guessed; when the two finally embraced at the end, hydraulic jets went off from the towers, spewing hundreds of gallons of water into the air, a dazzling visual effect, if a rather trite metaphor.  

That all this ran smoothly despite the deluge-like weather conditions was an astounding feat, although perhaps not as impressive as the accomplished performances that many of the singers delivered, their voices ringing out over the pitter-patter of rain from the fifty-nine speakers ingeniously hidden in the bricks of the Great Wall.

Top honors went to the American tenor Arnold Rawls as Calaf, who in Marelli’s staging bore a strong physical resemblance to Puccini in both wardrobe and mustache. Rawls, previously seen at the Seebühne in Aida and Andrea Chénier, sang with chesty and ringing tones. Drenched onstage for most of the evening, he flaunted urgency and perseverance, delivering a performance of dramatically buttressed lyricism. From his first note to his last, Rawls was never less than captivating. His noble and impassioned “Nessun Dorma” was just the icing on the cake. 

Would that Katrin Kapplusch’s Turandot had matched him in ferocity and skill. The German soprano, an ensemble member in Essen, sang with a full and thickly textured voice, which sometimes turned shrill with shaky high notes.  Yitian Luan’s Liù was far better. The young Chinese soprano, currently engaged in Saarbrucken, plunged into the role with the same inspired resolve that animated Rawls. To the role of the lovesick slave girl, she brought generosity and warmth, buoyant phrasings and sweet, imploring tones. As Timur, Russian bass Dmitry Ivashchenko, formerly at the Komische Oper Berlin, provided the performance’s deepest notes with his majestically commanding voice. Puccini described the characters of Ping, Pang and Pong as halfway between comedians and philosophers. Whether twirling in commedia dell’arte inspired robes and Chinese masks or preparing jars of severed heads in formaldehyde, Thomas Oliemans, Peter Marsh and Kyungho Kim carried out the composer’s wish to a tee, performing as a jocular, slightly morbid tag-team. Less happily, Christophe Mortagne, who earlier in the day sang wonderfully as the Three Servants in Les Contes D’Hoffmann, was curiously feeble as the emperor Altoum.    

Paolo Carignani, the former chief conductor of Oper Frankfurt, led the Wiener Symphoniker is a propulsive and sparkling performance. Together with the rousing work of the Prague Philharmonic Chorus and the sheer spectacle of the production, this Turandot had me thinking about how experiences like Bregenz (or Verona, for that matter) help return opera to the role it enjoyed in the nineteenth century as popular entertainment. I can safely say that it was one of the most impressive visual experiences of my life as well as one of the least comfortable. After sitting for two hours soaked to the bone, Bayreuth’s infamous wooden chairs, which had kept me captive for six hours a day earlier, seemed like first class cabins on the Orient Express —A. J. Goldmann

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