The Romantic Revolutionary: Bieito’s Turandot at the Staatstheater Nürnberg

Puccini – Turandot

Turandot – Rachael Tovey

Altoum – Richard Kindley

Timur – Jun Taehyun

Calaf – David Yim

Liù – Hrachuhí Bassenz

Ping – Sébastien Parotte

Pang – Hans Kittelmann

Pong – Martin Platz

Mandarin – Daniel Dropulja

Nürnberger Jugendchor des Lehrergesangsvereins, Chor und Extrachor des Staatstheater Nürnberg, Staatsphilharmonie Nürnberg / Gábor Káli

Stage Director – Calixto Bieito

Staatstheater Nürnberg. Sunday, October 19th, 2014.

  Earlier this year I was fortunate to see two musically superb accounts of Turandot at the Palau de les Arts in València and London’s Royal Opera House.  Despite their clear musical virtues, the stagings failed to engage with any of the difficult issues that the piece raises.  While they were musically deeply satisfying they did not manage to resolve the work’s inherent sexism and racism.  Today, I expected something more substantial, a performance that would challenge dramatically and reward musically.  We certainly got exactly that.

 © Ludwig Olah
© Ludwig Olah

The Staatstheater Nürnberg is a gem of a theatre located a very short walk from the main rail station. Ticket prices are more than accessible and the intimate auditorium, seating just over 1400 people, is an ideal place to see opera.  The quality of the chorus and orchestra is outstanding and there is a fine ensemble which allows the house to cast from strength.  It is indeed an excellent venue.

 © Ludwig Olah
© Ludwig Olah

We know that Calixto Bieito is never one to take any piece for granted. He always pushes his artists yet, despite claims to the contrary, nothing he ever does is gratuitous and everything he does is always based on a reading of the text.  Now, it might not be a conventional reading, granted, but he always gives us a reading that is based on an interpretation of the work.  In the case of this particular Turandot his vision totally convinced.  Today the work was based in a doll factory which could be anywhere in a totalitarian state – North Korea perhaps or maybe, given the historical connotations and the location, perhaps even East Germany.  Rebecca Ringst’s set consists of boxes piled on top of each other at the back with the front of the stage kept clear.  A video projection shows a man’s face with Chinese characters being painted onto it and this continues throughout the show until the man’s face is completely covered and no longer viewable.  Personenregie, as always with this incomparable director, was excellent and he completely succeeded in the seemingly paradoxical task of making the large chorus both a single moving unit and a mass of individuals.

 © Ludwig Olah
© Ludwig Olah

The concept was that Calaf was sent to work in the factory of the domineering Turandot and as part of his initiation he had to cut an X shape into his chest. Yet this Calaf was a romantic revolutionary and he refused to conform to the harsh codes of the institution.  Rather than seducing Turandot by force he stood up to her.  By answering the three riddles, he rescued three women who were kept prisoners. The relation between Calaf and Liù was much sharper than in conventional productions.  Liù had clearly kept the memory of the smile and when Calaf sang ‘il mio nome non sai’ it was addressed to Liù rather than Turandot.  The ministers wore army uniform which they removed to participate in a party where they hung out in wedding costumes and harassed one of the female prisoners.  This suggested that the female prisoners Calaf liberated were involved in some kind of sinister sexual ritual.  Above all this was a place where violence, and above all sexual violence, was used to keep the workers under control.  In order to humiliate them, the ministers disrobed a number of them and they were forced to turn away at the death of Liù.  The scene between Turandot and Liù was one of great tenderness, where instead of Liù persuading Turandot to fall in love with Calaf, she was instead persuading her to regain her humanity.  The show ended not with the triumphalism of the final scene but at the death of Liù.  One could say that Bieito had given up at that point and did not want to deal with the transformation of Turandot into someone capable of loving Calaf.  I found it completely convincing and both satisfying and unsettling at the same time.  It had an enormous impact – Turandot, someone who could strike extreme fear into people and someone who was responsible for great cruelty, completely broken sitting on the floor.  It was enthralling, riveting and absolutely gripping.  Despite this alternative reading, this was a production that completely made sense and illuminated the work in a way that no other production that I have seen has managed to.

 © Ludwig Olah
© Ludwig Olah

Musically there was so much to admire in a cast where all of the names were new to me. Rachael Tovey’s Turandot was interesting.  The voice is a really nice size and opens up quite wonderfully at the top.  Yet she had this frustrating habit of breaking off the top notes prematurely which distracted from the excellence of her singing.  This was especially noticeable in that glorious moment in the riddle scene where Turandot and the chorus sopranos hit the high C in unison.  The Nürnberg ladies were fabulous at that point, as indeed they were throughout the show.  Tovey is an extremely watchable singer and I would certainly like to hear her again.  David Yim, who is alternating the role with Vincent Wolfsteiner (pictured), was a lyrical yet fearless Calaf.  The voice isn’t perhaps the biggest but he was exceptionally brave and gave everything he had both vocally and dramatically to his performance.  The voice has a good sappiness and carries well and he gave a dignified account of ‘that’ aria.  He managed to fully encapsulate the romantic revolutionary that Calaf becomes in this staging.

 © Ludwig Olah
© Ludwig Olah

Armenian soprano Hrachuhí Bassenz is a real find. The owner of a full-bodied lyric soprano with a highly distinctive red wine tone, she gave us highly affecting singing and acting.  The voice is a good size and carries well.  Jun Taehyun’s Timur offered a nicely liquid bass with a strong personality.  The ministers were incarnated by three very promising young singers – Sébastien Parotte’s smooth lyric baritone joined by two distinctive tenors in Hans Kittelmann and Martin Platz.   All three were highly watchable.

 © Ludwig Olah
© Ludwig Olah

As I mentioned earlier the Nürnberg chorus, prepared by the Estonian Tarmo Vaask, was outstanding. The sound was full and rich yet always well-balanced. The sopranos nailed the c-sharp at the end of ‘gira la cote’ and they really did make a fabulous noise.  Every single chorus member rose to the challenge that Bieito set them and they really did give an exceptional performance.  The orchestra was also superb – Gábor Káli brought out so many colours in the instrumentation and highlighted much detail that often goes missing.  It was sensational.

 © Ludwig Olah
© Ludwig Olah

This was not a production for anyone expecting feel-good chinoiserie. Rather it was one that challenged and fascinated in equal measure.  Bieito’s Turandot is a gripping study in how violence and intimidation are used to control.  It is an exceptional piece of theatre than no serious opera over should miss.  Moreover it is also a credit to the exceptional standards of the Nürnberg theatre that it is performed at such a high level.  Following Nürnberg it will be taken on by Toulouse and Northern Ireland.  This is a show that needs to be seen.  It may well be the definitive Turandot of this decade.

Turandot N CC

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