October 16, 2007 at 6:00 pm | Posted in Show Review | Leave a comment
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I went to Puccini’s Turandot last night; due to bad planning I ended up in ‘the gods’ – I was pleasantly surprised by how good the view was.

Oct 16, 2007 by Show_Hanger

Christopher Alden’s production was not like the 1994 wellington City Opera production. The latter was costumes in a faux chinese style. A few years ago I watched the DVD of the Zhang Yimou & Zubin Mehta production staged in the Forbidden City. So …

I found the this production’s stark setting a bit of a shock.

I took me more than the first Act to get into it. I guess that this was my own fault for not reacquainting myself with the plot. I found, in the first Act, that the music tended to drown out the singers. Maybe this was because I was up in ‘the gods’ – and so had a better audio pathway to the orchestra pit than to the stage. It took me a while to workout whether to read the sub-titles or not; I ended up reading the sub-titles during the riddles and glancing at them the rest of the time.

Act I introduces Turandot (the ice princess), Calaf (the wondering prince), Liu (the faithful slave girl) who looks after Timur (Calaf father and blind deposed king of the Tartars), and their short reunion, and the ‘competition’. I found the execution scene that cemented the harsh rules of the contest to win Turandot a little too stylised – especially given the stark 30’s communist Russia feel up to that point.

Once Ping, Pang, and Pong had finished their civil servant set-piece at the beginning of Act II, I found myself more on firm ground regarding the story, and was finally engaged. We see Turandot’s determination to be her own woman – a fairly common desire in the 20th and 21st centuries – surely an odd notion in Puccini‘s time. We see Calaf’s irrational need to pocess her and he plunges into the contest despite everyone advising him not to. Calaf answers the three riddles and in an act of ‘if you love someone set them free…’ he offers to free the princess of her obligations if she can answer one riddle in return.

I did not find the setting of the riddle contest believable: why would any empowered emperor allow some blind beggar to wander around his court – while affairs of state were in progress – and finally sit down behind the throne. I am sure there was some symbology going on that missed me. It was all a bit minimal – neither the Emperor nor Turandot had any attendents.

Act III opens with Turandot completely loosing it, and issues orders that everyone will be executed if they don’t find her ‘the name’. Throughout the opera Turandot is painted as an icy unfeeling person who has a bloody solution to any problem. No wonder the Chinese government would not allow this opera to be performed in China; they relented in the mid-90’s. The Liu character – and Maria Costanza Nocentini, the singer – almost steals the show by sacrificing her life, so that the secret love of her life – Calaf – can have the love of his life. Her torture and suicide was too symbolic – and what should have bee great suffering and great sacrifice seemed to just slip by: torture – tick, hidden love – tick, suicide – tick.

Then a simple kiss from Calaf wins over the princess. I can see that women sufferage was not even a twinkle in Puccini‘s eye. The curtain comes down on a variation of Nessun Dorma.

I did not like the 30’s Russia setting – though the overlay of a show trial upon the riddle contest was clever. I also thought the photo-portraits of all of the contestants was a nice touch – it emphasised how many men had died. But the parade of portraits at the end was just way over the top. It detracted from the relationships between Turandot and Calaf, and Calaf and Liu.

The singing in Act II and Act III was good. I am not a opera buff; but I was taken in and it mostly worked. That it was sung in Italian did not detract from my enjoyment. Margaret Medlyn, as Turandot, was strong throughout. Dongwon Shin, as Calaf, grew as the opera went on, and settled down to a strong voice starting with the riddles in the middle of the second Act. I suspect that voice and orchestra volume issues in Act I was due to the singers being a little tentative.


Since Puccini died before this, his final opera, was finished – around the scene of the Liu committing suicide – I wonder if he intended a slightly different end. One, with another powerful piece of music, rather than a re-work of Nessun Dorma.


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