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Turandot, the Happy End Restored!

Gran Teatre del Liceu
11/26/2023 -  & November, 28, 29, 30, December 2, 3*, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 2023
Giacomo Puccini: Turandot
Elena Pankratova/Ekaterina Semenchuk* (Turandot), Vannina Santoni*/Marta Mathéu/Adriana González/Maria Agresta (Liù), Michael Fabiano/Martin Muehle* (Calaf), Marko Mimica/Adam Palka* (Timur), Siegfried Jerusalem/Raúl Giménez* (L’Imperatore Altoum), Manel Esteve (Ping), Moisés Marín (Pang), Antoni Lliteres (Pong), David Lagares (Un Mandarino), Carlos Cremades (Il Principe di Persia), Alexandra Zabala*, Mariel Aguilar*/Oihane Gonzalez, Yuliia Safonova (Due ancelle), Virgínia Gimeno (Boia)
Coro del Gran Teatre del Liceu, Pablo Assante (chorus master), Coro Infantil del Orfeó Català, Glòria Coma (chorus master), Orquesta Sinfónica del Gran Teatro del Liceo, Alondra de la Parra*/Diego García Rodríguez (conductor)
Núria Espert (stage director), Bárbara Lluch (updated staging), Ezio Frigerio (sets), Franca Squarciapino (costumes), Vinicio Cheli (lighting), Marco Berriel (choreography)

M. Muehle, E. Semenchuk (© Antoni Bofill)

Turandot was Puccini’s ultimate and most outstanding opera. Unlike his other most often performed operas, La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Manon Lescaut, it’s not as sentimental. Orchestrally, it’s vastly superior and the orientalist colouring deeper than that of Madama Butterfly.

Turandot is based on a fairy tale from François Pétis de la Croix’s collection of Middle Eastern tales, Les Mille et un jours (1710‑1712) (not to be confused with One Thousand and One Nights), which in turn was made into a commedia dell’arte play in 1762 by Count Carlo Gozzi (1707‑1788).

Puccini died before finishing Turandot, but the work premiered posthumously in 1926, fifteen months after his death. Though he had hoped Riccardo Zandonai (1883‑1944) would finish his score, Puccini’s son Tonio opted instead for Franco Alfano (1875‑1954), who was also the preferred choice of publisher Ricordi, as Alfano had recently composed an orientalist opera La leggenda di Sakùntala (1921) with heavy orchestration similar to Turandot.

The exoticism of the opera, set in an undetermined time in Imperial China, adds to the magic of this glorious work. Sadly, directors in recent years have dispensed with the magical setting, justifying the change under the guise of boiling down the drama to its essence. Though excessive chinoiserie à la Zeffirelli can be overwhelming, a barebone staging can undermine the power of this work. One needs to be transported to an exotic realm to be captivated by the fantasy. Núria Espert’s exquisite 1999 staging is still the quintessential production, traditional in its exotically rich sets and costumes, but far from cluttered or overwhelming. Here, Espert’s staging has been gracefully updated by her granddaughter Bárbara Lluch.

To the shock of many at the time, Espert had chosen a different ending from the familiar: Turandot refuses to give in to the victorious Prince Calaf, who has answered three riddles, choosing suicide. Espert’s reasoning was that since Puccini’s music ended after Liù’s death, and since the final scene was written by Alfano, it’s open season. This is debatable, with the gloomy ending disappointing many. In this time of war, ethnic cleansing and pandemic, a tragic end doesn’t seem appropriate. Fortunately, Espert acquiesced to a “happy end” in her granddaughter’s updating of her staging.

As envisioned by Espert, the Imperial Chinese court is an unusually feminist one. Most of the courtiers are women, even the executioner, and there appears to be a procession of exclusively young female students present. Ping, Pang and Pong appear to be eunuchs. Perhaps this is Espert’s assertion that Princess Turandot is vehemently averse to men.

Ezio Frigerio’s sets were opulent, yet realistic and sober. The most impressive element was Emperor Altoum’s majestic throne, worthy of a “Figlio del Ciel” lauded by the Chinese populace who wished him to live ten thousand years. Given the predominance of women in the Imperial Court, Franca Squarciapino’s costumes were beautifully ornate. One misgiving was the headgear of some courtiers, which appeared to be decidedly Siamese (Thai), not Chinese.

The role of Turandot is a hugely challenging one for any soprano, perhaps the most exigent one in the entire Italian operatic œuvre. It requires a dramatic singer to confront the role’s heavy tessitura, hence the many Wagnerians who have sung the role, including Christel Goltz, Gertrude Grob‑Prandl, Birgit Nilsson and Gwyneth Jones. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reservoir of huge‑voiced Russian singers has taken over the role. In the present production, a Russian and a Belarusian alternate in the role.

Ekaterina Semenchuk had the goods, but her huge voice has a metallic edge unsuited for Puccini’s music. Her Italian was understandable but, like her singing, was short on legato. The Act II showstopper “In questa reggia” was powerful but monochrome. One would have liked to have heard tenderness and rage when Turandot evokes her ancestor Lo‑u‑Ling, abducted and raped by a foreign invader (and the reason of her eternal vendetta against men). In Act III, there was a hint of the ice princess melting in the final duet with Calaf. Nonetheless, Semenchuk sang this demanding role with ease, amazingly as she’s a mezzo! Her signature roles are Azucena in Il trovatore, Eboli in Don Carlo, and Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. One can only admire such prowess.

The star of the show was the amazing German-Brazilian tenor Martin Muehle. Endowed with a powerful instrument, he’s able to sing softly and with superb command to express myriad emotions. Dramatic tenors with huge voices tend to sing forte indiscriminately, but fortunately for us, not Muehle. He’s also a great actor and moves naturally onstage. Needless to say, his Act III “Nessun dorma” brought the house down.

The evening’s disappointment was French soprano Vannina Santoni, clearly miscast in the role of Liù. This role requires a lyric soprano with beautiful legato and the ability to produce ravishing pianissimi. Santoni is a soprano leggero, ideal for roles like Massenet’s Manon and even Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, but is out of her league here. Her first aria, “Signore, ascolta” was disappointing, especially for the absence of the final, subtle pianissimi at the end of the aria. Thankfully her Act III aria, “Tu che del gel sei cinta” was believable, as well as beautifully expressive.

The role of the Emperor Altoum, Turandot’s father, is a minor one that demands a character singer. Hence, it’s often given to older tenors past their prime. However, Argentinian Raùl Giménez, once a star Rossini tenor in the 1980s and 90s, far past his prime, with the unfortunate result sounding thin and ugly. In contrast, Polish bass Adam Palka was an excellent Timur, Calaf’s father. His voice was powerful, his diction clear and his interpretation effective.

Manel Esteve, Moisés Marín and Antoni Lliteres, respectively Ping, Pang and Pong, were delightful. Espert had the interesting idea to present their Act II scene lamenting their chores as ministers in the Imperial Court in front of an audience, namely a young girl from the Imperial Court’s school for girls that Espert introduced in Act I. This justifies their commedia dell’arte, which may have otherwise seemed odd to modern audiences unfamiliar with the art form.

As is often the case with the Gran Teatre del Liceu, one is impressed with its capacity to market such blockbusters as Turandot. On the evening I attended, there wasn’t an empty seat to be found. I presume this will be the case for all fifteen performances. With a capacity of 2,300, this means they will reach over 34,000 spectators within a period of three weeks for this masterwork. Unlike other major opera houses, tourists here are only a small component of the audience. Congratulations are in order for such entrepreneurship. The Liceu is able to fill its coffers and to make opera appealing to a great public, without debasing the art form. No mean feat in this day and age!

Ossama el Naggar



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