Returning Home: Turandot at the Festival Puccini, Torre del Lago

Puccini – Turandot

Turandot – Karine Babajanyan
Altoum – Yoshida Kazuky
Timur – Abramo Rosalen
Calaf – Teodor Ilincăi
Liù – Emanuela Sgarlata
Ping – Giulio Mastrototaro
Pang – Didier Pieri
Pong – Francesco Pittari
Mandarin – Davide Battiniello

Coro delle Voci bianche del Festival Puccini, Coro del Festival Puccini, Orchestra del Festival Puccini / Michele Gamba.
Stage director – Daniele Abbado.

Festival Puccini, Torre del Lago-Puccini, Italy.  Saturday, July 23rd, 2022.

Tonight marked another first for me, a visit to the Festival Puccini at Torre del Lago, this year celebrating its sixty-eighth edition.  The festival takes place on the shores of the Lago di Massaciuccoli, next to the villa where Puccini lived and worked.  It’s a most agreeable place to see a show.  The beauty of the location is undeniable, the welcome cordial, and the stand selling local wines was an especially nice touch.  Programming naturally centres on Puccini, but this year there are also performances of works by Rihm and Maderna.  Unlike in Macerata and Verona, for example, the performances here are amplified, but this is done extremely effectively.

This production of Turandot was confided to Daniele Abbado.  He gives us a logical and fluent piece of theatre.  Costumes (Giovanna Buzzi) are in some ways redolent of China, in others seemingly both ancient and futuristic.  Large blocks with Chinese characters inscribed upon them, were wheeled around the stage by a group of actors and occupy multiple functions – providing homes for Altoum and Turandot, for instance, as well as additional visual interest.  Blood is, unsurprisingly, a constant presence with Liù taking her own life by pouring a bowl of blood over herself, and the Principe di Persia being stripped to his underwear and having blood painted over him.

Photo: © Andreuccetti

Abbado gives us an efficient staging, but I left with a sense that he was unwilling to dig deeper below the surface and question the work’s misogyny.  This is an extremely problematic piece – a man who won’t take no for an answer to a woman who had made it clear she didn’t want him.  Yet it also contains some magnificent music, particularly for the chorus.  Abbado uses them as a rigid block, frequently lined up on the side of the stage.  This works in creating a sense of a large, conforming mob, but it also felt a little lacking in originality and not telling us the story of those individuals contained within.  The Berio completion was used, which lacks the triumphalism of the Alfano, but here again I’m not entirely convinced Abbado managed to make Turandot’s journey and motivations believable to us.  Or perhaps, they simply can’t be now to a twenty-first century audience. 

In a way, I wished that Abbado had closed the evening at the death of Liù, just like Calixto Bieito did in Nürnberg, still the most convincing and thrilling Turandot I’ve seen.  Berio’s completion sounds fragmented, melodic ideas taken and then dropped, although the vocal lines remain similar to those in Alfano’s, presumably as these are directly from Puccini’s sketches.  That said, I found the ambivalent close a refreshing alternative to the aforementioned triumphalism of Alfano. 

Photo: © Andreuccetti

Michele Gamba led a swift traversal of the score, leading a very impressive and responsive orchestra, although a few slips in stage-pit coordination betrayed the fact that this was a first night of the run.  Due to the combination of the amplification and my seat at the very front, I heard a lot more of the intricacies of the score that one often would – the interplay between string sections, for instance.  It also brought out the modernity of Puccini’s writing, reminding us that this was one of the first major operas of the twentieth century.  The orchestral playing was excellent, the brass especially, and any passages of sour string intonation could be explained as a combination of being highlighted through the amplification with the humidity of the lakeside location.  The chorus was extremely enthusiastic, singing with generous vibrations, the high C-sharp in ‘gira la cote’ definitely present, and the tuning following the death of Liù was precise.

Karine Babajanyan gave us an imperious Turandot.  She sang ‘in questa reggia’ with great exertion, the effort of getting the sound out visible, the line ‘quel grido’ taken perhaps a bit too literally.  As the evening developed, she relaxed into some genuinely warm and lyrical singing, with the top gleaming in a way that was less apparent in her opening number.  It was certainly exciting, mainly as one didn’t know if she’d make those high-lying phrases.  She generally did and the chorus joined her for a thrilling combined high C.

Photo: © Andreuccetti

Teodor Ilincăi was a stentorian Calaf.  The voice isn’t perhaps the most glamourous, but the top is reliable, pinging out his big high C in the riddle scene, or rising to the occasion at the close of his big number.  There is a dryness in the middle, however, suggesting a lyrical instrument being pushed to be artificially bigger.  That said, his was a highly respectable stab at the role.  Emanuela Sgarlata gave us a passionately sung Liù.  She doesn’t quite have the ability to float at the top of the voice, singing her numbers with extrovert determination.  Tuning was also problematic, frequently under the note.  She was, however, warmly received by the audience and her native diction and ability to use the text gave pleasure.  Abramo Rosalen brought a very handsome bass to the role of Timur.  It’s a big, warm sound of striking depth and resonance – definitely a voice I’d like to hear again.  Yoshida Kazuky sang Altoum with a focused tenor and impeccably clear diction.  Giulio Mastrototaro sang Ping in a firm column of sound, while Didier Peri and Francesco Pittari sang Pang and Pong in characterful tenors.

This was a satisfying evening overall.  Seeing opera in the place where Puccini lived and worked was a real privilege and the beauty of the location made it feel like a genuinely special occasion.  The singing was admirable, the staging logical, and it was efficiently conducted.  The reception from the Torre del Lago audience was warm and enthusiastic.

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