Big Bregenz Turandot

The Bregenz Festival’s main attraction is an opera performed on a stage anchored in Lake Constance (in it!) to a huge amphitheater. They’re probably best known for their appearance in the James Bond film Quantum of Solace. That may not sound like a setup for quality musicianship or aesthetic risk-taking, but you might be surprised–that Tosca glimpsed in the Bond movie is actually pretty interesting if you watch the whole thing and nightly something approximating the Wiener Symphoniker is in the pit. (Note: not actually a pit.) Nothing against Verona, but this ain’t Verona.

Not quite, that is. There’s plenty of fire juggling as well. Bregenz wobbles between the largest, heaviest Regietheater you will ever see and the Cirque de Soleil-type spectacle the dramatic setting and mass audience suggests. New intendant Elisabeth Sobotka seem acutely aware of the challenge; in an interview in the festival’s own publicity she calls their Andrea Chénier of a few years ago an artistic triumph but very difficult financially, while she simply calls the most recent production, of Zauberflöte, very economically successful, leaving its artistic virtues or lack thereof tactfully undescribed.

This tension is acutely visible in their new production of Turandot, which opened on Wednesday night. Director Marco Arturo Marelli tries to problematize the opera’s exotic cake and eat it too. While at times he succeeds by brute force, the result is mild indigestion.

Puccini, Turandot. Bregenzer Festspiele, 7/22/2015. Directed by Marco Arturo Marelli with sets by Marelli, costumes by Constance Hoffman, lights by Davy Cunningham, video by Aron Kitzig. Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Paolo Carignani with Mlada Khudoley (Turandot), Manuel von Senden (Altoum), Michael Ryssov (Timur), Riccardo Massi (Calaf), Guanqun Yu (Liu)

The setup (my photo). Seats are behind the tree on the left.

Marelli’s set, like its predecessors, juts out of the lake while the huge seating structure is perched on the edge of the bank (rather like the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in shape, only seating 6,800 instead of 1,800). Despite mild to medium rain, everything kept going with the audience wrapped in our ponchos (sold with programs for 1 Euro).

When choosing huge Chinese things for a huge stage, Mareilli went obvious and the set involves a curved orange Great Wall in the shape of a dragon, and there are also rows and rows of terracotta soldiers rising from the water and towering from the back. At the opening bars of the opera, the middle portion of the wall slowly and carefully collapses.

The wall and soldiers seem to have no symbolic meaning, nor does the wall’s lazy crumple. (Maybe it looked more impressive from further away–I was quite close, though off to the side.) It’s all for big effect. That the genuine terracotta army was constructed for an emperor’s tomb to defend the occupant in his afterlife seems to not be taken into account. The choruses are illustrated with a supernumerary army dressed as additional clay soldiers (though the actual singing chorus is elsewhere), there are also acrobats, fire jugglers, boats, bodies dropped off the wall’s huge tower, etc. In the second act, a huge circular screen shows us dragons and a (child’s?) CGI face which unfortunately looks a little like someone’s idea of a Chinese Gollum.

But while this and much of the onstage China iconography is of the painfully clichéd sort, Marelli’s production also makes some rather large gestures towards deconstruction. Downstage right is a small platform representing Puccini’s room at the Belgian clinic where he spent the last months of his life. The opera begins with a Puccini lookalike puttering around, finally turning the handle on a huge music box. Out comes a tune from Act 1. This, apparently, inspires the opera in his head and off we go. (There is a degree of historical truth to this, but it’s a bit more complicated than shown here. It’s funny how these concepts always erase the librettists. Except for that Salzburg Ariadne about Hofmannsthal, these composition scenes never take any account of where the opera’s words came from.)

The Puccini figure is Calaf, engaged in a struggle to make Turandot understand love, all while ignoring Liu (per usual). I gather that according to the Konzept this is because Puccini was obsessed by love and romantic heroines. A crowd of 1920’s-dressed operagoers tells Puccini/Calaf not to write Turandot/enter the Turandot Sweepstakes, presumably because they don’t want Turandot to do him in. When Ping, Pang and Pong make this argument it’s back in Puccini’s downstage room, where Calaf struggles to hold onto his opera’s manuscript, fighting to finish his opera and also get on with the evening’s plot. (P, P, and P’s long scene leaves the Chinese colors for a file room set which seems to be visiting from The Makropulos Case.) There is also a white commedia dell’arte clown wandering around for unclear reasons.

Look! China!

This makes me raise my eyebrows about as far as they will go, not because Puccini’s life didn’t influence his works but because it’s a rather silly, superficial romanticization. It doesn’t do much for the plot, either, failing to give us any insight into Turandot as a character. Also, I could see a big problem coming from a mile off. Calaf wins the Turandot Sweepstakes but Puccini died before he finished Turandot. Unless this opera was going to renounce the final duet and kill off Calaf I had no idea how the Konzept was going to wrap it up while hanging onto its conceit at all. The production is ambiguous at this point: Puccini spends most of the third act tied to his bed; perhaps the final duet is only his dream? I wish Marelli had navigated this ending in a clearer way.

But the spectacle of Big Opera coexists uneasily with the deconstruction of it. I guess the intent is to provide something for both Kenner und Liebhaber (connoisseurs and fans), but these aren’t two modes you can toggle with a switch. The Puccini world tells us, mildly, that the exotic China is an arbitrary creation of the composer (and invisible librettist), but that exoticism is presented absolutely straightfaced, thoughtlessly, totally kitsch, seemingly gathered from a China’s Greatest Hits a guidebook. The two don’t just exclude but contradict each other. You can’t deconstruct Turandot without noting some ambivalence about its presentation of China, but that’s not a pleasure this production is willing to give up.

Puccini look-alike Calaf

Maybe this is too much to ask from Destination Opera floating in a lake (note: not actually floating), but I’m trying to take it seriously on the terms it presents itself. It certainly is a musically serious endeavor. There are rotating casts and there’s no way of knowing which one you’re going to get on any given night, but since it was the premiere I am assuming that we got the A list. They would all be credible performers at a standard issue Wiener Staatsoper repertoire night, though rather less than a Sternstunde.

Guanqun Yu

It’s easy for Liù to steal Turandot and musically speaking that’s exactly what Guanqun Yu did (theatrically speaking, I don’t think anyone’s stealing anything away from that set). She’s got a rich, silky tone with beautiful high notes and a naturally sympathetic quality. I enjoyed her surprise Met debut as Leonore very much and this role seems to suit her voice even better. As Turandot, Mlada Khudoley was often shrill and wobbly, nor does she seem to have a feeling for the music.

Riccardo Massi made some downright listenable sounds as Calaf, though they didn’t always connect with each other. He also has to be one of the least interesting interpreters I have seen recently–despite being perfectly mobile, he doesn’t even attempt to act beyond Pavarotti-type gestures. His inconsistent singing was explained when it turned out he had been saving all his energy for “Nessun dorma,” which at least did sound pretty good. Supporting roles were adequate. The amplification, if anything, was a little weak. While I could hear the orchestra and chorus, detail was lacking, as was the usual Turandot wall of sound. (This could have in part been the fault of the plastic poncho hood wrapped around my ears.) The balance, however, was good, and I am amazed that Paolo Carignani and the tech kept everything so smoothly coordinated.

Bregenz’s version of opera is bigger than life, bigger than an opera house, produced with massive technological resources (amplification, huge numbers of people, costumes, and multiple boats), but demonstrating an almost quaint allegiance to the machinery of live performance. The orchestra is invisible, their sound piped in. This would seem to complete the operatic illusion in a Wagnerian fashion. Yet the orchestra and chorus’s presence is restored by multicamera views of the conductor, orchestra, and chorus on two large screens on either side of the stage (these also show the titles). They could be in Vienna for all I knew, but their liveness is held up as part of the spectacle. Similarly, the program book describes in loving detail the personnel, materials, and time required to build the massive stage (there are 205 terracotta soldiers! they are illuminated by 30 lights!). The goal is not total illusion but total awe. Without showing the production’s underpinings, the audience wouldn’t know what went into, and thus would not be maximally astonished by, its creation. At that point, quality cedes to quantity–which is why it’s still surprising that this festival is altogether better than it needs to be.

continues through August, and is on 3sat tonight and ORF this weekend. It will also be performed next year. Up next: a post about the Bregenz Experience and the real reason I am here: the Stefan Herheim Tales of Hoffmann, which I saw last night! (Rumors of Stefan Herheim going boring are, er, wrong.)

photos copyright Karl Forster and Anja Köhler

Previous Turandots
The one on an ice rink where the Bayerische Staatsoper made us put on 3D glasses
The one at the Volksoper in which all the characters were insects
The Zeffirelli Met one, which will probably survive us all


A few more photos:





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  1. Do you happen to know why the stage was cleared and the crowd was unhappy during the telecast night? I have only seen the video on YT and can't understand what the announcement said. It happens at the 51:00 mark here:

  2. The announcement says they're going to stop and move everything inside to the Festspielhaus (it was raining steadily that night). The audience is unhappy because only those with the fancy tickets will get to go inside and see the inside version. Presumably the broadcast then switched to a previously taped Seebühne performance–likely the one I reviewed since it's the same cast. I guess they just weren't quite slick enough to switch from the live performance to the taped one without showing the interruption–not the best PR for the festival!

    The weather hasn't been very kind to Turandot so far. It's been cold and rainy in this part of Europe.

  3. I saw it tonight. The greatest visual feast. However, without the very entertaining explanation above, I did not know what was going on. They needed an explanation of the Directors vision to guide the attending viewer. Also the programmes were not in English so it was extra hard work to understand. But visually incredible. The whole stage was like a Hieronymus Bosch painting on LSD. I wish I was on nice Opiates drugs to really enjoy it.