Turandot is the last Italian opera by Giacomo Puccini, left unfinished by him at his death in 1924 and completed by Franco Alfano in 1926. Performance visited: Premiere, 31 August 2019, Staatstheater Darmstadt.
Turandot: Soojin Moon
Calaf: Aldo Di Toro
Timur: Dong-Won Seo
Liu: Jana Baumeister
Altoum: Lawrence Jordan
Ping: Julian Orlishausen
Pang: David Lee
Pong: Michael Pegher
Mandarin: Werner Volker-Meyer
1. Frauenstimme: Aviva Piniane
2. Frauenstimme: Sonja Bühling
Opernchor des Staatstheaters Darmstadt
Conductor: Giuseppe Finzi
Direction: Valentin Schwarz
Unfinished symphonies, you can fill a festival with them
Schubert, Ludwig van Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Bruckner, Edward Elgar, Sibelius, Shostakovich, and a few lesser or less known gods (Penderecki, Stout, Górecki, Kleven and Schnittke), all lazybones that have never taken the proverb “Think before you start” to heart. Okay, syphilis, spinal cord disease and the Grim Reaper can be argued as extenuating circumstances.
And then of course there are the unfinished operas by Gade, Zemlinsky, Mozart and Liszt. Here, too, there are various causes: alcohol abuse, extramarital relationships, bowling alley visits, and so on and so forth. But the Queen of Unfinished Operas is without doubt Turandot. Dramatically unfinished, since the composer died of a heart attack caused by radiation in connection with throat cancer before he was able to complete his last two scenes.
The great completion could thus begin. We will briefly discuss five versions here, in qualitatively ascending order.
1) We first come to Mrs. Janet Maguire, a self-excessing composer, who worked on a new ending from 1976 to 1988. She thought she could reconstruct the end of the opera from the sketches Puccini had left behind. The result was disappointing and the Maguire version is rightly never performed. Or it must have been by a musical wiseguy who “rediscovered” Maguire.
2) Then we have Berio, who was also allowed to put an end to Turandot. Total failure. Narcissistic (lots of Berio, little Puccini) and just as Puccinian as a flat rear tire on your way to Sint-Job-in-‘t-Goor. Chailly subtly remarked that in Berio’s version he heard two master composers at work. Superb tongue-in-cheek!
3) The best-known finisher with a nose for the goal was, of course, Franco Alfano, himself a not inconsiderable opera composer (Risurrezione, 1904). He wrote the last two scenes, in collaboration/fighting with Toscanini. Alfano’s first version was rejected, the second accepted, but drastically shortened by Arturo Toscanini. Alfano 2.0 is nowadays the widely used, rather bombastic end of Turandot. Not exactly the “finale like that of Tristan” Puccini had in mind. The first version of Alfano has been completely forgotten, and unjustly so.
4) In 2008 the Chinese composer Hao Weiya wrote a new ending for Turandot. This version was approved by the Puccini Foundation. And rightly so. A successful attempt to bring the opera to a Puccinian end. See this video:
5) The best conceivable conclusion took place in 1926, when Arturo Toscanini conducted the world premiere of Turandot in the Scala in 1926. The opera ended with Liù’s suicide, i.e. with the last notes written by Puccini himself. Toscanini turned to the audience and said: “This is where the opera that the maestro left unfinished ends; when he reached this point, the maestro died.” It is a pity that this version has not become a tradition.
The performance we visited in Darmstadt was almost in accordance with the Toscanini recipe, to our great joy. We thought that Puccini’s opera was about the ice rabbit Turandot and Prince Calaf, who falls in love with her at first sight. Calaf first has to solve three riddles. Everyone advises Calaf not to start this venture. He does it anyway, of course. Calaf insists that Turandot marries him for love, and tells her that he will die for her if she can discover his name in the morning. Turandot pulls out all the stops to find out his name. Liù, who is charmed by Calaf, even gives her life to save Calaf. Eventually Calaf reveals himself to Turandot and she gives in to her love for him. She has discovered his name: “Love”. The kingdom is happy with the new couple. Calaf not only cracked the three riddles, but also the ice rabbit.
Turandot is based on a fairy tale; there is endless nagging about its origins, but what do we care about its origins? Puccini’s magnificent music has primacy here. Has better opera music ever been written than the notes Puccini attributed to Liù?
Yet it is not that simple, at least not according to director Valentin Schwarz. He says things like: “Die Gefahren einer ambivalenten Anziehungskraft des Exotischen liegen in der einhergehenden Abwendung von realen politischen Problemfeldern.” And: “Sein trancehaft-egoistisches ‘Nessun dorma’ bewertet protofaschistisch die Selbstberauschung höher als den Untergang einer Welt, mit nicht absehbaren Folgen.”
And so on. Postmodern Quatsch.
Now that we know that “Nessun dorma” is trancehaft-egoistic, you will not be surprised to learn that we in Darmstadt were not able to enjoy a direction à la Zeffirelli. But the direction was not that bad, we were spared the most serious idiocies à la Bieito. There was a hideous (borrowed from the IKEA collection) transparent thin screen, in front of which conceptual incomprehensibilities took place, to the satisfaction of Today’s People: what was that fifties sitting corner including a cosy twilight lamp doing there? Behind the transparent screen almost everything was folkloric “Chinese”, pretty well done, so the director was cleverly betting on two horses. Everybody happy. Not in the least because of the beautiful visual effects. By the way, such a translucent screen that separates the stage from the backstage, isn’t that slowly becoming a bit of a trivial matter?
“Anziehungskraft des Exotischen”
In Darmstadt, an excellent team of soloists had been put in place. The title role was in excellent hands with the Korean soprano Soojin Moon, who is increasingly – and successfully – dedicated to the dramatic Fach. In the Netherlands we remember Soojin Moon from one of the two most beautiful Butterflies that have ever been performed in the Netherlands: in 2012, Opera Zuid, directed by Frank van Laecke. (The other top Butterfly was the one with Annemarie Kremer, directed by Laurence Dale.)
For the title role in Turandot you not only need a soprano that meets the high vocal demands of the role, but also a powerful personality that reflects Turandot’s Krupp-Stahlen character. Soojin Moon was a complete success in both respects. The high, cleaving notes were made of unbreakable glass, without her voice ever becoming shrill – a danger that is always lurking in Turandot’s role. She survived excellently the orchestral violence of the end of the second act. Moon’s “In questa reggia” was one of the absolute highlights.
Turandot is ruthless, on the one hand (she has had 26 princes killed), but on the other hand, she melts with love after being kissed by Calaf! (Kissed by A Man! Is that possible, in 2019?) And Soojin Moon was also fully convincing in that transition from the ice queen to a longing, loving woman. In terms of direction she was given an exaggerated and sometimes not very princess-like gesture that put a completely unnecessary extra accent on the already sufficiently dramatic music. Are we reading a parody of the “Anziehungskraft des Exotischen”?
Powertenor Di Toro
Aldo di Toro played the role of Calaf with an exceptionally strong tenor voice. He is gladly forgiven for a few intonation problems here and there. However, in Di Toro’s recipe for “Non piangere, Liu”, the lyric herbs could have been spread a little more generously. This Prince Calaf occasionally took a brush in hand to update the IKEA banner. The “Protofascist” amateur painter who grabs power, a German archetype!
The names Ping, Pang and Pong are nowadays strongly objected to in America, because these names are said to be racist (I kid you not). As far as I know, this madness has not penetrated Europe, not yet anyway. In any case, the ministers P, P and P were beautifully costumed, and acted less clownish and caricatured than usual. We liked this.
This last Puccini opera is a musical adventure. Here too, as in Butterfly, we find various Asian accents (the gongs, the xylophones and the chimes), but it’s still an Italian opera. The choir plays an extremely important role, even more so than in Puccini’s other operas. The opening is a series of five dissonant chords (for the lover: C Sharp > D major), which are said to symbolise the fall of the axe. Anyway, the beginning is certainly terrifying. Opernchor des Staatstheaters Darmstadt and Staatsorchester Darmstadt, conducted by Giuseppe Finzi, produced a fine piece of work by more than adequately expressing Puccini’s music in all its versatility. Orchestra and conductor turandotalled to their heart’s content.
The choir sang skilfully. One of the disadvantages of living in Amsterdam is the fact that our National Opera, this sympathetic and generous organisation, has the best opera choir in the world. Unfortunately, other choirs are always of less quality, but we have no complaints about the Opernchor des Staatstheaters Darmstadt.
It goes without saying that one of the most tragic and moving figures in opera literature should not be left unmentioned: Liù. This role was played by the fantastic Jana Baumeister. She is not exactly the frail Liù that old, white men have in mind, but what a singer! And that’s what it’s all about. Beautiful phrases and a voice of extraterrestrial if not extrastellar beauty with breathtaking pianissimi. The audience rewarded her and Soojin Mon generously, but at the same time fired a number of penetrating boos at the director. A distribution of praise and criticism that we fully agreed with.
The Turandot in Darmstadt is one with pluses and minuses. The pluses were undeniably for Liù and Turandot: Jana Baumeister and Soojin Moon.
Much obliged, ladies !
(gepubliceerd op 2 september 2019)