Futuristic Sacrifice: Turandot from the Gran Teatre del Liceu

Puccini – Turandot

Turandot – Iréne Theorin
Altoum – Chris Merritt
Timur – Alexander Vinogradov
Calaf – Jorge de León
Liù – Ermonela Jaho
Ping – Toni Marsol
Pang – Francisco Vas
Pong – Mikeldi Atxalandabaso
Mandarin – Michael Borth

Cor del Gran Teatre del Liceu, Orquestra Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu / Josep Pons.
Stage director – Franc Aleu.  Video director – Benoît Toutlemonde.

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, Catalonia.  Tuesday, October 15th, 2019.  Streamed via Arte Concert.

Turandot is a problematic work.  Not only is there the fact that Puccini left it unfinished, and that Alfano’s completion is not at the same compositional level, but the piece is hard to take seriously in a time where we are more conscious than ever of its violence and misogyny.  The tale of a man who won’t take no for an answer, who forces himself on someone who clearly doesn’t want him, or the story of a woman who pays the ultimate price for love who pays her no attention – none of this sits comfortably with a modern audience.  Most productions stage it as unthinking, feel-good chinoiserie.  Some take a more radical view.  For instance, Calixto Bieito staged it in Nürnberg and Belfast as a reflection on the power of love and of standing up to authority in a society of horrific violence, ending just where Puccini stopped writing.  It was such an influential staging on my view of the work that I haven’t seen another Turandot since.  Until now.

This new production, by multimedia artist Franc Aleu, the first performances at the Gran Teatre del Liceu since 2009, is a visual overload.  Set in a distant, space-age future, Aleu brings out the totalitarian society within which horror lies.  This is a society full of a faceless people, that march on and off in formation, wearing a visor on their head that lights up – presumably indicating their imprisonment.  In this society, Liù and Timur are outcasts – not just because of their status as foreigners, but because they are able to feel and share emotion.  This makes for an intriguing reading of the tale – the idea of a society made subservient by electronics, unable to feel and relate to each other.  But it also reinforces this idea of power relations and control, both self and of others, and in turn, actually reinforces the fact that Calaf’s journey is less about love and more about power.  The way that Aleu achieves this is highly intelligent, indeed it’s hard to do so without spoilers.  What he does, however, is illustrate Liù and Turandot’s journeys and growth as characters.  Whereas in those epic, unthinking soulless productions that treat Liù’s death as an afterthought, here it actually means something and its role in allowing Turandot to assume her humanity is very much brought to the fore.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill

On the small screen, the impact of the visuals is incredibly striking.  Aleu creates a world in which images accompany the action – visuals of tears flowing in ‘signore ascolta’ or a blazing crown taking over the stage for the Emperor, for instance.  I also found it intriguing as the ministers reflected on their country hideaways, they did so within images of bubbles that moved around the set with them – although, at the start of that scene, they seem to have been costumed as if they were heading to a night out in a Berlin rubber establishment.  The downside with this overly visual approach, is that often the principals felt under-directed, with many outstretched hands and looking to the middle distance.  Although, in the case of Iréne Theorin in the title role and Ermonela Jaho as Liù, this was most definitely not the case.

Indeed, Jaho gave us a performance of searing emotional power.  Her Liù was so much stronger than we often see, a woman full of deep emotion and able to communicate it.  No shrinking violet this, but instead someone who truly believed in what she was doing, who could genuinely see that her sacrifice would really make a difference.  Vocally, Jaho was exquisite, her initial high B-flat on ‘sorriso’ floated effortlessly.  Her ‘signore ascolta’ was sung with heartfelt passion, long lines and again, exquisitely floated on top.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill

Theorin gave us a mighty Turandot. The sheer cutting power of the voice was immediately apparent, even watching on the small screen.  No screaming here, as we so often hear, but instead streams of focused tone, able to ride the massed forces with ease.  The voice sits relatively high which makes it ideal for this music, thriving in the awkward tessitura that sits right in the passaggio.  She’s not all about the power though, sensitively pulling back on the tone and shading it with delicacy.  Theorin is also an imperious stage presence, able to more than hold her own in the decadent set and able to communicate even while wearing an impressive headdress and a dress filled with lightbulbs.

The gentlemen were not quite on the same level.  Jorge de León was a valiant Calaf, trenchant in tone and always giving generously of himself.  It sounds to my ears like a fundamentally lyric instrument being pushed to be a size too big, with the result that the tone now sounds leathery and vibrations have loosened.  He rose to his big number, pinging out on high, but it must be admitted that there was a fair bit of heavy lifting required.  That said, de León did shade the tone and pull back on the dynamics where required.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill

Alexander Vinogradov sang Timur with a lugubrious bass and exotic vowels.  The three ministers were well matched, while it was a pleasure to hear Chris Merritt again as Altoum, singing with verbal acuity.  Conxita Garcia’s chorus was on vibrant form for this, a work that gives them as much of a spotlight as the principals.  Tuning in those tricky passages just after Liù’s suicide was admirable, and the sopranos soared magnificently along with Theorin in their high C in Act 2.  Throughout they sang with impressive blend and unanimity of approach.

Josep Pons led a reading that brought out the exoticism of Puccini’s soundworld, apparent even over this online streaming.  The opening was as sharp as a knife, the harps threatening within the texture.  Similarly, some eloquent wind playing, particularly from the oboes, or a bassoon playing in the highest reaches, gave the scoring an exotic fragrance that one doesn’t often hear.  Tempi seemed entirely sensible and the brass, in particular, was most impressive.  Perhaps the organ could have been more audible in the sound mix at the end of Act 2, and the off-stage trumpets seemed extremely distant in the final scene, but these kinds of things are inevitable when watching a recording.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill

This Turandot makes for a visually striking and intelligent reading of a highly problematic work.  It gives us a thoughtful resolution that turns accepted wisdom on its head, instead giving us a satisfactory conclusion to a piece in which finding resolution is exceptionally difficult.  Musically, in so many respects, it’s absolutely first class – the chorus and orchestra are on thrilling form and Pons’s conducting brings out so much in the orchestration.  That said, Theorin and Jaho really do sweep all before them in performances that are utterly magnetic and vocally thrilling.

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