Puccini Turandot C Major

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Turandot (1924)
Iréne Theorin (Turandot); Jorge De Léon (Calaf); Ermonela Jaho (Liù); Alexander Vinogradov (Timur); Chris Merritt (Emperor Altoum); Symphony Orchestra & Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu/Josep Pons
Franc Aleu (director)
rec. live, October 2019, Gran Teatre del Liceu
Sung in Italian with subtitles in Italian, English, German, Spanish, French, Korean, Japanese
C Major 763508 DVD [118]

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… sat a director who tried to work out what to do with the problem that is the opera Turandot – namely that everyone lives happily ever just a few minutes after the slave girl, Liù, sacrifices her life in an ‘it-better-work-or-I’m-in-trouble’ gesture of demonstrating true love. Quite how this director came to the conclusion that, instead of setting the opera in ancient China, but rather in futuristic China, new light would be shed upon the drama and all its problems solved is anyone’s guess. Unsurprisingly, they’re not – and this is not just because nobody knows what the future looks like, but also since the director, Frac Aleu’s, idea of futuristic China would not seem out of place in a sci-fi movie, one wonders why he didn’t go the whole way and just call it ‘Turandot from Outer Space’. Maybe he resisted that idea, since it appears that after his self-proclaimed brilliance of fast-forwarding the action several thousand years into the future, he then seemed to be outta (sic) ideas with what the future actually looks like by merely boldly going where everyone has gone before with Star Wars-esque light sabres, in a set seemingly in homage to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, with a huge whiff of Stanley Kubrick’s2001 for good measure; one is just relieved that the moon hasn’t been replaced by a gigantic battlestar, floating in the sky as the mysterious object of the Popolo di Pekino’s worship in Act I. Actually, scrap that last point – in this production the moon has been replaced by a floating bubble that drifts off into the distance. So the director magnificently achieves everything he had set out to do as, just like the heroine in her eponymous opera who has nothing to sing in the first act, any mention of the composer, the music and the singing in this opera production has been reduced to a brief cameo appearance at the end of the first paragraph of this review. 

To be fair, this Turandot on DVD is visually spectacular. This is mainly because Franc Aleu is also a video artist, as well as a director, and so uses 3D technology and projection-mapping to transmit images onto a gauze placed at the front of a permanently darkened stage to create colours and lighting effects that are genuinely breathtaking, even if it sometimes looks as if the drama is all taking place inside some kind of giant snow globe. Because of the permantly darkened stage, all the chorus members wear lamps on their heads, small strip-vizors of light that look as if they have been borrowed from the instrumentalists’ music stands in the pit. The Emperor, Liù , Timur and Calaf have no lights, although the latter borrows the discarded strip-vizor from the Prince of Persia as he makes his way towards his execution, which I suppose has some symbolic meaning as shortly afterwards he starts wearing it after he has seen the Principessa for the first time. Turandot herself also has a huge light-headset which, when she is standing still, makes her appear as she has a silver halo above her head, not too dissimilar to those medieval paintings of religious icons. However, whenever she moves it wobbles slightly, which makes it look as if she has burst into an impromptu performance of attami (the Indian head-sliding dance), which I’m not sure was anyone’s intention. The set itself is a rotating platform, one side of which is a huge staircase surrounded by battlements upon which the chorus stand, with the reverse side something smaller-scale that is used for the first scenes of the second and third acts. It must have been overwhelmingly dazzling in the theatre – but therein lies the problem with this production; it is so dazzling that all the action and drama is suffocated, with the soul of the opera sacrificed with the same callous disregard the Icy Princess shows to all her prospective suitors, to the pursuit of technological brilliance.

It is not that it is difficult to discern just what insights the setting of the action in the future was supposed to bring, or even if it is set in our very own solar system at all; it is that absolutely everything is subjugated to this director’s futuristic concept. So there is no executioner, merely a couple of red flag waving extras representing one and the crowds are so ‘unruly’, only six armed guards are required to keep them in order. The moon is merely a bubble that morphs like something from a 1960’s lava lamp off the top of the “snow globe” and you have no idea what the trio of government ministers can possibly be singing about during their scene in at the beginning of Act II, when they reminisce about their ornamental gardens and forests of their homes, within this dark dystopian nightmarish setting. More crucially, none of the characters are able to rise to anything other being two-dimensional caricatures with so much technology swirling around and by the end you really don’t care what happens to any of them. Yet there is worse to come.

Turandot’s pivotal transformational kiss in Act III, seems to involve the removal of her electric-light headset by Calaf, to which he then ecstatically sings, like Salome to Jokanaan’s severed head, until the end of the opera. Perhaps the interpretation is that all Calaf wanted all along was the Principessa’s “crown”, rather than the woman herself, thus rendering one of the most spectacular moments in the opera when he sings: “No, no, Principessa altera! ti voglio ardente d’amor!” (“No, no, haughty princess! I want you burning of love”) to little more than hot air. Thereafter, alone and ignored, Turandot herself resorts to kneeling down and cradling the corpse of Liù that has been left at the front of the stage and after telling her father, the Emperor, that she now knows the stranger’s name (“Padre augusto, conosco il nome dello straniero! Il suo nome… è Amor!“ – “August father, I know the name of the stranger! His name….is Love!”) with the chorus ecstatically singing that all the light of the world is love, she bends down and lovingly and lingeringly kisses the slave girl on the lips…To continue the futuristic, outer space theme, I’m sure Dr Spock would have concluded: “It’s Turandot, Jim, but not as we know it.”

Perhaps none of this would have mattered if musically it was excellent; however, it is rather average, even if I am judging this from the perspective of over half century of this opera on film. Josep Pons is in the pit and directs the forces of the Gran Teatre del Liceu competently, if little else, even if at times I felt he was playing down the grandeur of the music; it came across as somewhat small-scaled. As the Icy Princess, Iréne Theorin certainly has the power to cut through the mightiest of orchestral tsunamis, except her voice curdles under pressure and above the stave. Her Calaf, Jorge de Léon, has a decent tenor, but is thin on top; he also ducks the optional high note with “No, no principessa altera” which is always a disappointment. Calaf’s father, Timur, is a young-looking but light-voiced Alexander Vinogradov, who does not make much of an impression, whereas the slave girl Liù is performed with some distinction by Ermonela Jaho, who reprised the role three years later for the Pappano recording with Jonas Kaufmann on Warner Classics (review / review). Hers is a remarkable voice, dark with contralto-esque hues; listening to her Liù you can almost imagine her essaying a role like Carmen with her husky and powerful chest voice, but then she goes and floats some exquisite high notes above the stave and you realise why she became famous for her singing of this part in the first place.  She is in better voice here too than in her somewhat more ‘matronly’ sounding account for Pappano. Chris Merritt is the wobbly Altoum, while the remainder of the cast is adequate, no more. 

The sound and picture quality on my standard DVD (there is also a Blu Ray release) were first class, the picture quality especially so. 

When I published my Conspectus on Turandot earlier this year in 2023, my conclusions for this opera on DVD were as followed:

….. I think Corelli sounds in even better voice in the film from 1958. That is, of course, on DVD [VAI Music], where visual considerations begin to play an important role in any assessment and, happily, under the direction of Mario Lanfranchi who cleverly infuses the action with choreography from Chinese opera, it is a much better experience than you would expect from an opera film from the 1950s. {That said] It is probably not that surprising to find that the most recommendable DVD is the 1987 Metropolitan Opera production [on Deutsche Grammophon] where, once more with a strong cast, orchestra and conductor {Levine] and a production which, for once, seems to match the spectacle of Puccini’s score, the whole exceeds the sum of its excellent individual parts. Éva Marton is the Icy Princess in that performance, but even though she is captured in far worse vocal estate, with a less satisfactory supporting cast, several years later at the San Francisco Opera, that performance proves revelatory for other unexpected reasons as, in combination with her director Peter McClintock, she produces a ‘traditional’ interpretation of the role which is amazingly convincing on a purely acting level and just has to be seen [Arthaus Musik]. The sets in that production by David Hockney are also hugely imaginative and unique, while not losing sight that this is a tale set in Ancient China; I recommend it highly. There is, of course, much that is not ‘traditional’ about the 2005 performance from Barcelona [TDK Musik], but its spectacular sets and stunning lighting effects demand to be seen, in a thoughtful production by Núria Espert that throws a different light on the opera and somehow ‘works’ in ways that the more obviously revisionist productions of Pountney and Lehnhoff most certainly do not.

There is no doubt that I can add Franc Aleu to the names of Pountney and Lehnhoff now too, even if those two directors were probably taking their cues from productions that included the modernistic Berio ‘completion’ of the opera, whereas this production from Liceu is of the standard Alfano-Toscanini score.

Coincidentally as I was writing this review, a thought-provoking thread was posted on the Message Board by one of MusicWeb International’s readers, wondering if perhaps opera directors go so far these days in their revisionist thinking of operas, that audiences are left alienated by their results. In this particular case, I am very much of the opinion that whatever visual brilliance Franc Aleu is able to bring to bear in his direction of this production of Turandot, the end result is pretty much a travesty of anything Puccini the composer intended with his creation, with an ending which, far from shedding light upon a difficult opera, just adds further confusion. I totally respect the idea that opera productions should not be ‘museum pieces’ to all be performed in exactly the same way over and over again, but innovation needs to spring from the notes of the score as well as the spirit of the libretto, not with ideas just grafted on designed merely to shock audiences and to create storm-like scandals swirling around with the director at the centre, in the eye of the hurricane. I fear that this brilliantly executed and visually dazzling Turandot is nothing more than that.

Lee Denham

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Other cast and production staff
Toni Marsol (Ping); Francisco Vas (Pang); Mikeldi Atxalandabaso (Pong); Michael Borth (A mandarin); José Luis Casanova (The Prince of Persia)
Carles Berga/Franc Aleu (Set designers)
Chu Uroz (Costume designer)
Marco Filibeck (Lighting designer)