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Hiroshi Wakasugi’s production of Puccini’s Turandot for Tokyo’s New National Theater tries to deal with many complex issues involving the opera – its incompleteness, its possible inspiration in Puccini’s private life and, most of all, preconceived notions of Asia turning around the idea of Orientalism. The clever if contrived solution is the magic trick named mise-en-abîme. Basically, we are shown an Italian small-town fair where Puccini, his jealous wife and the ill-fated maid who worked for them mingle with local characters. Suddenly, a group of Chinese street artists appears in a trailer to present a show named… Turandot and, with the help of masks, everything is mysteriously transformed in the legendary world of Princess Turandot. When Liù dies, the magic vanishes and the Italian village is back to reality. The ensuing tenor/soprano duet is shown as something like a married couple discussing their relationship. 

Although the whole concept is ambitious, its main drawback is its didactic approach. For example, before the orchestra is allowed to play the score’s first notes, a silent pantomime taking almost five minutes is performed for us to un-der-stand what it is all about. There is also more than one splash of bad taste, especially in what concerns poorly conceived dancing numbers featuring some unspeakable costumes. Also, one might think that there is too much going on stage, some kind of Zeffirelli production on a tin can, but in the end the acrobats and clowns do find some sense in the story and fit into the frame of the spectacle.

The musical aspects are less provocative. Antonello Allemandi does not master the art of blending the sections of his orchestra: strings were too recessed and brass was overloud throughout. However, the less satisfying aspect in his musical direction is the lack of forward movement: the slow tempi tested his cast and the ensembles sometimes sounded noisy and laboured.  

There is something beyond doubt – that Irène Theorin is a dramatic soprano. She has a sizeable voice and, at least in a smaller theatre such as this, her higher register is impressively powerful and firm. She can pull it back for mezza voce when necessary, but the sound is not terribly beautiful. Actually, this is a singer who impresses more when singing her Spitzennoten than during passages in which legato or more immediate beauty of tone are required. Most people expect that the Liù is going to steal the show, but Rie Hamada’s smooth lyric soprano proved to be actually small-scale for Puccini. She could sing her lines all right, but with little reserves of power and some tension in the pianissimi. Walter Fraccaro is a realiable singer who generally coped with the heroic aspects of his role.  However, he seemed somewhat tired right during his big aria. He would regain his strength for the testing writing in the Alfano ending. Among the minor roles, Hidekazu Tsumaya stood out with his firm velvety bass.

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