Turandot on ice. No, really.

Would you like your opera to include

a) A game of hockey onstage. On actual skates.

b) Breakdancing

c) People waving baguettes

d) All of the above… IN 3D! Get out those Bay Staats-branded red and blue glasses, kids.

If you answered d), this production of Turandot from Carlus Padrissa of La Fura dels Baus is for you. Yeah, Turandot, an opera that is already This Close to being irredeemably kitsch. Some would try to retreat from this line, this production runs over it with a Zamboni. It’s like Zeffirelli, with B-grade scifi and LSD instead of brocade and crockery. Musically… eh. The singing and characters are about as important to this thing as they are in Zeffirelli, unfortunately. They did try their best, though.

Puccini, Turandot.  Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/26/12.
Musikalische Leitung Dan Ettinger

Inszenierung Carlus Padrissa – La Fura dels Baus
Bühne Roland Olbeter
Kostüme Chu Uroz
Video Franc Aleu
Licht Urs Schönebaum

La principessa Turandot Jennifer Wilson
L’imperatore Altoum Ulrich Reß
Timur, Re tartaro spodestato Alexander Tsymbalyuk
Il principe ignoto (Calaf) Marco Berti
Liu Ekaterina Scherbachenko

I gather from the program book that this production is about Europe in 2046, when it has been bailed out by and is now controlled by China. This political dimension was not so evident from the production itself, which is just generically futuristic Chinese. It was, Padrissa claims in the program note, inspired by a visit by La Fura dels Baus to China. Padrissa seems blissfully unaware that he is taking Orientalism Central and making it into Futuristic Orientalism Metropolis, so maybe it’s good that he didn’t actually attempt to pursue this political theme. If you are curious about cultural implications, you can read an essay entitled “China through the eyes of occidental poets. A literary-historical foray through contrasting topoi of violence and powerlessness, grandeur and submission, multitude and individual”* in the program. For that matter, you could also watch Rush Hour 2.

The entire thing is ridiculously over-the-top and utterly straight-faced. Padrissa takes the Ice Princess idea really literally and the entire stage is an ice rink, populated at various times by figure skaters, hockey players, and at one point guys with brooms like curlers (Spanish dude tragically neglected Bavarian curling, though, which doesn’t have brooms). The color palette is largely black and white marked by splotches of red, orange, and yellow. Descending at times is an enormous gong on a platform with a hole in the center, where Turandot makes her dramatic entrance and most of the 3D projections also happen. Just in case you though I was joking about the 3D glasses, I wasn’t:

3D is not used often in theater because live people, certain tenors excepted, generally possess three dimensions already. Here, it was just another trippy gimmick in a staging full of them, but I can’t deny that it’s kind of a fun trick. Shame that the projections themselves weren’t that interesting, mostly resembling a spirograph or maybe a screensaver from the Windows 95 era. (The surtitles showed a little glasses symbol when 3D was approaching, and there was a rustle in the theater of everyone putting on their glasses. It was maybe four or five times over the course of the opera, for a few minutes each time.)

Padrissa doesn’t have much to say about the story or characters, and most of the staging is as strong as the spectacle. The big scenes work, the intimate ones don’t so much. Personally I found the whole thing totally ridiculous (I offer this caveat because I think other audience members took it entirely in earnest) but a blast in a “so bad it’s good” sort of way. The reasons for many of the effects—a lot of business with an undulating carpet of skulls for Ping, Pang, and Pong, various spinning acrobats, a crowd of children in white-hooded robes like a small KKK army, what I still swear were baguettes at some point during Act 2—completely eludes me, but it’s kind of fun, no? Not that I can imagine ever wanting to see it again.

There is one significant bit: Padrissa ends with the score as Puccini left it, with Liu’s death, without the big love duet. It is abrupt and musically rather unsatisfying, but for the Konzept, it had to be thus. Liu dies via “bamboo torture,” with a tree growing through her, and we go into a Verwandlung that is nominally Taoist but seems lifted from Daphne, with nature melting the ice and the evil Chinese people getting back in touch with their natural roots. Or something.

The music’s purpose in this staging is principally coloristic. Maybe if I had been closer to the stage I would have had a better sense of the drama, but the enormous costumes and largely park-and-bark blocking for the singers meant that I wasn’t overly involved in their plight. Dan Ettinger led a solid though very loud account of the score. The orchestra sounded good, though some of the singers seemed less than confident about the tempos. As usual, Liu more or less walked off with it. Ekaterina Scherbachenko has a delicate but full lyric soprano and sang with more emotion that she could physically express here, hers is a voice I want to hear again. Marco Berti made a stolid yet solid Calaf, producing a lot of strong, healthy sound and rarely overpowered by the orchestra. But he does very little to shape the music or character. Jennifer Wilson was adequate but somewhat disappointing as Turandot, her large voice sometimes turning shrill though she can sing all the notes. Supporting characters were fine, and in this scheme didn’t make too much of an impression.

This was… something else, that’s for sure. Call it a popcorn opera. You can’t fault the Bay Staats for their commitment, even when the thing they’re committing to is bonkers.

* “China im Augen abendländische Dichter. Ein literaturhistorichesr Streifzug durch Topoi des Kontrasts von Gewalt und Unmacht , Größe und Unterwerfung , Masse und Individiuum”Photos copyright Wilfried Hösl.
Video, more photos follow:

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  1. Would you like your opera to include

    a) A game of hockey onstage. On actual skates.
    b) Breakdancing
    c) People waving baguettes
    d) All of the above… IN 3D! Get out those Bay Staats-branded red and blue glasses, kids.

    I chose:

    e) None of the above.

    I am only interested in the opera creator's take on the work; i.e., to realize onstage the concept and vision of the opera's creator as made manifest in the score (music, text, and stage directions).

  2. Hi Zerbinetta!

    For my own opera I vote for baguettes. Since The Earworm and I have already discussed creating an opera in which a soprano holds up a convenience market, I think the baguettes would be quite appropriate. The ice would be in 20 pound bags.

    As a composer, I find that performers frequently have different and potentially better ideas about how to present my work. So I never write off the interpreters.

    As an opera buff, I enjoy the museum pieces (zefkoffkofferelli and pretty much most stuff at the KoffMETkoff) but I also appreciate an artist (conductor, singer, director, coreographer) pointing out something about the opera that I never thought about.

    Of course, this Turandot sounds pretty over the top, even for me. Though I get annoyed by the bandying about of the "ET" moniker (usually used as code for "I thought it sucked,") I will refrain from jumping into THAT argument.

    Thanks for sharing your opera experiences.
    Rob — and, yes. that's my real name 🙂

  3. (The comment Rob is replying to was removed for showing no evidence its author had read anything beyond the first paragraph of the post and having nothing to do with Turandot at all. Sorry, Rob. I myself would argue that staging a world premiere is quite different from staging a repertoire standard!

    This staging is trippy but basically traditional. To do some Werktreue trolling on this particular post advertises that you don't care about the details, you just want somewhere to plant your unrelated soapbox.)

  4. After reading your review and watching Bay Staat's trailer, i would have LOVED to watch it and take lots of pictures! Note that I didn't say I want to "listen" to it!

    This very much reminds me of La Fura's Tannhäuser at La Scala quite a few moons ago (2 years?). It was also very coloristic and Bollywoodian…but for me the fun was spoilt when the Edelmänner und Eldfrauen march onstage wearing very colourful saris, and executing rather ineptly gaudy Indian dance movements. Rather unedifying!

    How was dear Zubin's conducting?