In the shocking new production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot at Amsterdam’s Nationale Opera, director Barrie Kosky and conductor Lorenzo Viotti decided to take radical measures to rejuvenate the understanding of the work. So you don’t see a Chinese imperial palace or oriental accessories on stage, but in the orchestra pit the exotic xylophone melody sounds like the rattling of bones.
Puccini’s last opera is unfinished; the composer died in Brussels in 1924 during cancer therapy. There are sketches of the end of the third and final act, and the opera text by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni is not complete either. Puccini wrote under one of his sketches: “poi Tristano”. What did that mean? A half-hour love duet à la “Tristan and Isolde” attached to an exotically orchestrated Italian lyrical drama – or just a vial of love potion and the world is no longer gray but blue?
Finale with funeral march
Even the composer despaired of how the ending should be designed. For posterity, there has been Franco Alfano’s version since the premiere under Arturo Toscanini, but it didn’t quite do justice to the rest of the music drama. In 2001, Luciano Berio composed a new ending and now production teams around the world were forced to make a decision.
Lorenzo Viotti and Barrie Kosky — the director unjustly received some boos from the premiere audience — rely on original Puccini music in Amsterdam and leave the funeral march after Liù’s death as the last piece of music. So there is no “happy ending” between the bold prince Calaf and the cool, man-murdering princess Turandot. After the last note, the action continues in fade-out mode, inner voices whispering in someone’s head, then they too die away.
The chorus is upgraded by Kosky and Viotti to the leading role as laid out in the play. Before the music begins, the curtain rises to form a beautifully illuminated veil of mist in various shades of gray (light by Alessandro Carletti), and people lie on the ground, sleeping or dreaming. It’s not idyllic; it could also be a group of the undead who, as if under an inner compulsion, sometimes lift an arm, jump up and fall to the ground again.
In any case, they are people with an individuality, a destiny, a gender – the loose gray clothing (costume Victoria Behr) does not make them a faceless mass. Barrie Kosky has achieved great things here, in that the actions of the choir seem alive, so to speak suffered. Like the crew of a ghost ship, they yearn for release from the present condition. Conductor Viotti also devotes himself to the choir with particular dedication and great gestures; A slight discrepancy in the tempi between the stage and the orchestra pit in the first act indicates the enormous musical challenge that the singers otherwise master with flying colors (choral direction Edward Ananian-Cooper).
Turandot does not appear
A further radicality lies in the scenic treatment of the title character – Turandot does not appear. Her voice is there, even very present, but you don’t know where it comes from. “Turandot doesn’t exist,” sing the three court jesters Ping, Pang and Pong at one point, and Kosky takes that literally. For the puzzle scene, a gigantic yellowish skull with a shock of black hair slowly descends from the rigging loft (Michael Levine stage). However, it is not a comic object from the props, but has mysterious life in it, in which elongated yellow-black creatures slowly wriggle out of the eye sockets (choreography by Otto Pichler). Standing on the skull, Calaf solves the three riddles and then, as the supposed winner, begins a love-drunken dance of death.
Defiantly he asks the princess a riddle involving life and death. Why is he doing this, one wonders, is it such a “man thing” that he has to defeat the adored Turandot a second time to win her? The woman who really loves him, Liù, just shakes her head, she can’t reach him. The fact that these questions arise, that one does not accept every character trait for the sake of the passionate music, is a merit of thoughtful direction.
During his night watch, the famous aria “Nessun dorma”, Calaf has fallen into a sweetish, drug-like sphere, with death dolls decorated with roses around him. Najmiddin Mavlyanov sings the aria with a dark-timbred tenor, even plays the aria with Viotti and the magnificent Dutch Philharmonic Orchestra, although his drunken “vincerò” (I will win) is washed over by the sound masses of the instruments. Kristina Mkhitaryan as Liù seems a bit tense at the beginning, and Viotti takes her first heartbreaking aria “Signore, ascolta” so slowly that the flow almost comes to a standstill, but with her well-led, touching soprano she grows into a convincing role portrait. Tamara Wilson masters the vocal challenges of the title role with vocal imagination and enough “metal” in her voice. Despite all the presence, it is a loss that you don’t see them sing.
The smaller roles are excellently cast. A lyrical highlight is the yearning trio of Ping, Pang and Pong (Germán Olvera, Ya-Chung Huang, Lucas van Lierop), who wish they were far away from this place. Dreamily they lead the loveliest little skulls like singing hand puppets; sublimated, magically illuminated cynicism.