review by Albert G. Storace
The Times of Malta – Saturday 1 November 2008.
For the second time in as many weeks, Gozo marked the 150th anniversary of Giacomo Puccini’s birth with two performances of Turandot, the first of which is under review here. It was staged at the Astra as part of the Mediterranea Festival which runs until November 22.
Turandot is Puccini’s strongest, bloodest and cruellest score, a cruelry which is also vested in the taxing parts written for the soprano taking the title role and the hero Calaf who challenges her, outwits her, and finally thaws her icy heart. Yet Puccini lavishes a lot of tenderness for the other soprano role, Liù‘s even though her end is no less cruel. It is a challenging work from every point of view and the overall power and strength of this (unfinished) masterpiece came across pretty well. As with all opera productions in Gozo, one never ceases to wonder how sheer determination, love and a lot of hard work put in by volunteers keeps this art form alive and kicking on such a small island.
Once more the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra crossed the channel and this time put in its bit under the able direction of Joseph Vella. His reading left little to chance being in firm but not stifling control, although one just wished that towards the beginning, in the first chorus, the pace were not so fast, even if this was of short duration.
The Astra Opera Chorus had a lot of work: after all, Puccini hardly allotted the chorus as much importance as he did in Turandot. Some misgivings about the chorus concern just the tenor section when in their invocations to the waxing moon individual voices were heard and they sounded rough unlike the ethereal finesse of the orchestra which captured the atmosphere so well. From then on things went much smoother as everybody settled down to their allotted task.
Mario Corradi’s staging of this work was very good, with a lot of colour and spectacle. The brilliant costumes of the court ladies and other palace officials contrasted with those of the common crowd, and all crowd scenes were well handled. The trio of mandarins Ping, Pong and Pang provided some lighter touches to the grim plot and they interacted excellently. Marco Chingari’s Ping towered above the other two, not only physically but also vocally, to the adequate Pong of Giovanni Maini’s and the regrettebly reedy-voiced Pang of Davide Malandra. At first the trio being attired in the Western tails seemed rather quirky but this fitted well with Corradi’s declared concept of them as theatre masks.
The Timur of Franco de Grandis was dignified and poignant even if the tended to bray some of his high notes. Baritone Kevin Caruana was the mandarin who read out the conditions governing the suitor’s attempts to solve the three riddles which Turandot sets with relish, by means of which she hopes to thwart any attempt to be possessed by a would-be husband.
Unfortunately, Mario Portelli’s Emperor Altoum was barely audible and too frail, even if the character is supposed to be old. An unusual touch to the staging was when after Liù‘s suicide, which is the point where Puccini stopped orchestrating the opera, all actions on stage stopped for a minute as a sign of respect and to honour his memory.
This leaves the three main characters. One must congratulate soprano Miriam Cauchi’s excellent all-round interpretation of the slave girl Liù, a role the accomplished projection of which never fails to win the public’s hearts, and this Ms Cauchi achieved with great credit.
Soprano Francesca Patanè in the title role was also very effective dramatically because whereas most dramatic sopranos are bulky, she is far from that (though not too wispy) and her beautifully chiselled features made her all the more credibly sinister. There is power and volume in her voice which is best in the middle and lower registers…(who could forget the Lady Macbeth at the Astra last year?). It is a pity that her top register was much too strident and she even lost her clarity of diction for it. As for tenor Antonino Interisano’s Calaf, he scored a success, especially in the vocal department.
He has a beautiful timbre, strong and powerful and delivered to the full. What a pity that some audience started applauding his Nessun dorma too soon. So much so that by the time the music ended, what should have been the explosive reception his rendering deserved just fizzled out. He deserved better. When will some people learn? Premature applause before the curtain goes down also completely destroys or weakens dramatic effect, a common occurence in our islands.
photos – Joe Attard