I understand that staging Puccini’s Turandot must seem at first a boring task – the action is supposed to take place in some sort of technicolor imaginary China, there are character names Ping, Pang and Pong who sing of a laghetto blù to rhyme with bambù, the tenor falls in love with the seriously mentally deranged soprano after seeing her for two seconds from hundreds of miles away, decides to risk his life to win her and, when there is the opportunity for a tête-à-tête, calls the murderous beauty “mio fiore mattutino” while some invisible voices sing a text my printed libretto quotes as “Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!”. I respect therefore Lorenzo Fioroni’s decision to try to do something different in his 2008 production for the Deutsche Oper. His opinion that violence plays a key role in the plot and that it draws somehow Calaf and Turandot to each other is intelligent (the fact that Liù’s death didn’t make him waver not a bit in his determination to woo the one responsible for it is only an evidence that the gentleman is not exactly a sensitive soul) and I like the Pirandellian atmosphere of this staging, especially the play-within-the-play-solution for the difficult execution scene in act I. But then subtle touches of humor increasingly develop into downright silliness and by the end you’re just embarrassed that someone could have found himself clever for having designed the following closing scene: Turandot announces that Calaf’s name is “love”, grabs a knife and kills her father; aroused by the display of gore, Calaf grabs himself a knife too and also kills his own father; Ping, Pong and Pang, who are watching the whole scene from a scaffold, decide that it is probably not safe to go down at this point.
While the musical performance was entirely unexceptional, experience always counts when one is conducting in an opera house. Even if the orchestra was not in top form, the veteran Jesus López-Cobos achieved the ideal balance between sparing his singers and producing rich but not loud sonorities, something vital for the success of a performance of a Puccini opera. I havealso heard the Deutsche Oper chorus sing with more polish in other occasions, but they did sing heartily in a way that made sense with the stage direction.
When one speaks of Maria Guleghina, it is difficult to speak of perfection, but then (with the probable exception of Birgit Nilsson), when can one speak of perfection in the title role? I would say more: Guleghina is a singer whose shortcomings I find easy to forgive, since she is always ready to give her all and to try everything, even when it is not safe. Unfortunately, I never heard someone like Nilsson or Dimitrova in this or any opera live – and so far Irene Théorin was the best Turandot in my experience. If the Ukrainian soprano does not command her Swedish colleague’s ability to flash laser-like acuti (and is a less reliable in terms of intonation), she did offer an altogether more consistent account of the difficult role. Her phrasing is more fluid, her middle-register is more focused and she finds no problems in the often uncomfortable low notes; except in two or three key moments in which her voice became sour and unstable, she avoided forcing her tone and let her high notes spin and her shift to soft dynamics is spontaneous and integrated. In other words, she sounded less a harpy than most, tried to inject some aggressive sexiness in her performance and mellowed in a very vulnerable and feminine way in Dal primo pianto.
In a performance of Turandot, the Liù usually steals the show – not this evening, I am afraid. While Manuela Uhl could produce one or two beautiful examples of high mezza voce, her singing was often squally and metallic and one missed the charm and warmth a lyric soprano should evoke in this repertoire. I am afraid Roy Cornelius Smith, whom I had never seen or heard before, should have made it announced that there he was indisposed but willing to sing. His tenor sounded grey-toned and somewhat hoarse and he had often to conjure all his strength to produce his stentorian high notes. He did try to soften the tone in one or two moments, but I am convinced that the voice was not healthy enough this evening – and it is dangerous to sing a role like this in such state.