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TURANDOT – a director’s triumph

review by Cecilia Xuereb
The Sunday Times – November 2, 2008

Opera lovers in search of a sumptuous and traditional Turandot are sure to have enjoyed Mario Corradi’s production of the opera at the Astra Theatre in Gozo on October 23 and 25. Corradi created a lavishly detailed production, with the action kept generally to the fore, the singers always visible amid the panoply of chinoserie that could have engulfed them, though the exquisite costumes did draw the eye unfailingly.

At the same time, he gave a focus to his production that was deeply thought-out and that with its touches suggested new ways of thinking about the opera. Foremost among these was the treatment of Ping, Pong and Pang. These are characters or masks that the librettists, Adami and Simoni borrowed from the old commedia dell’arte. As such, they are essentially comic characters, not really part of the main action, although, in some way connected with it both dramatically and musically.

Corradi however, goes beyond this traditional presentation. For him, as he says in his illuminating programme note, the masks represent the author himself who "as the action unfolds, comments on the absurdity of the story, but of human love and the excesses of human love." The director made this statement immediately by presenting them in modern evening clothes. They are outside the action but they are also inside it.

Corradi abandoned their conventional stereotyped presentation and they appeared as human beings even while they retained their role as a link in the structure of Puccini’s work.

At one end stood Calaf, Liù and Timur, individuals with full human emotions and at the other Turandot herself, who denies her emotions, and the people of Peking, who are emotionally frozen by her influence.

Caught between these extremes, these three characters show human feelings. They feel sorry for Calaf, even protecting him physically by trying to cage him up, but they also cynically argue that he should enjoy a hundred spouses rather than one reluctant Turandot.

Puccini had been writing about love all his life: like his Tosca in Vissi d’Arte he had lived for love and music, but now as he approached his end, having been obliged to leave his home in Torre del Lago because of  local animosity. He was also feeling the animosity of young composers who felt Italian music should be going along new paths and he started looking at love and life differently.

Turandot herself is distant and remote, a fact emphasised in the first act by her brief appearance at a distant window from where she  simply appears, a figure, remote and mysterious, making the decisive signal for the death of the Prince of Persia. But for Corradi she is not the embodiment of cruelty but rather a woman who "struggles to become a woman". She does not hate men, but does not trust them and will only yield to her femininity when she finds a man who is her equal intellectually.

For this reason in the second act, the riddles act, Corradi presents Turandot encased in a golden monument. When she sang her great aria In questa reggia,  which is probably the greatest aria in the opera, only her face was visible. As Calaf solves one riddle after another, this monument gradually collapses and becomes stairs that will lead her to more normal feelings. What this does not explain is her initial resentment at Calaf’s success and her appeal to the Emperor to release her from her oath.

Musically Turandot marks yet another turning point in Puccini’s carreer. He was the last of the 19th century operatic traditional in the age of Ravel, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg when young Italian composers, little known today, but powerful enough in their own time were attacking him and demanding that Italian music forsake the 19th century operatic tradition. Although he resisted these influences, perhaps inspite of himself in last opera, he could not avoid working in a new way. 

The music of Turandot certainly could not have been written at the beginning of his career. The pavilion music of the masks at the beginning of Act II, for instance, resembles that of Ravel in his Mother Goose Suite. The eerie music with its clashing chords, quiet trombones and harp plus strings and percussion in Act I has a definitely modernistic sound. The orchestration uses many percussion instruments, both those tuned to give pitched notes and those which create an untuned sound.

Puccini uses Oriental effects, as well as Chinese tunes. The rythyms of music keep changing with the action and the quality of the sound changes with the characters. Frenzied climaxes give way to gentler moods; loud, brash music expressing Turandot’s Peking alternates with gentle flowing music depicting the warm loving and personal characters of Liù, Calaf and Timur.

Joseph Vella conducting the National Philharmonic Orchestra relished in its glamour and at the same time pin-pointed harmonic and rhythmic detail. Only rarely did the music drown the singers, and when these could not be understood it was a matter of articulation on their part, rather than of balance.

This was particularly the case with soprano Francesca Patanè who was an imposing Turandot, giving a hundred per cent dramatically and vocally. She has a powerful voice that can be rich and lustrous in her middle register, but which is rather screechy at the top.

Her discomfort in this register affected her diction an it was rather unfortunate that the words of the aria (In questa reggia) – an important moment for our understanding of her character – were incomprehensible. This is a very demanding aria with the melodic line continuously rising. Equally incomprehensive were the words of the three enigmas. She was most at her ease in the splendid love duet that concludes the opera.

Tenor Antonino Interisano was a portly Calaf with another powerful voice with real squillo. He was undaunted by the demands made on him by the part, even though in preparation for the last note of Nessun dorma he cut short the preceding notes. His Non piangere, Liù in Act I flowed gently as did Miriam Cauchi’s Signore ascolta. During the first performance on Thursday, Cauchi’s lustrous voice, exquisitely controlled, was at its best in the last act when she spoke of her love for Calaf. Warm and vulnerable, she was a perfect foil for the cold and powerful Turandot. Her death is set to a march, grave and dignified. It is music Liù deserves and tha Cauchi sang with heartfelt pathos.

Franco de Grandis’s bass does not have an over-generous tone but it served well the part of Timur. Vocally the best of the three masks was baritone Marco Chingari, admirable for his professionalism as an actor and for his firm singing.

A solid supporting cast and good singing from the choir kept the music and action moving. An attractive set functioned well in all three acts and necessitated no complicated scene shifting with consequent waste of time.

photos – Joe Attard