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.

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Turandot and the culture industry

It is a little-known fact that when Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote in Dialektik der Aufklärung that “amusement always means putting things out of mind, forgetting suffering, even when it is on display… at its root is powerlessness,” they were thinking of Franco Zeffirelli’s Met Opera production of Turandot. Despite it being performed year in and year out, this Friday was the first time I have seen this ridiculously outsized spectacle, because I try to avoid things that I know will make me angry, afraid that I will be compelled to unleash the blogging equivalent of the Incredible Hulk. But on Friday to the Met I went, and it was just about as bad as I feared, if not worse.

Turandot’s China, as composed by Puccini, is a vast, cold machine, its people an anonymous mob and its princess ice. But who should appear but quasi-European Calàf, who manages to, like Don José, conquer the resistant feminine Other. (Think of Liù as Turandot’s Micaëla.) Zeffirelli’s vast stage machines, the sets massive and gratuitously detailed and crowded with scurrying extras, leave little space for human feeling and individuals. Perhaps Turandot’s realm is actually his ultimate achievement as a director. It fits the music in a way where his Traviata was merely ridiculous, but it exacerbates the problems of the score.

That Viennese Turandot where all the characters were insects was onto something–if you hang onto the Chinese setting, it’s hard to do so in a way that doesn’t feature a) awful cultural appropriation and b) the direct portrayal of the Chinese as soulless savages. If you don’t see what’s wrong with this I recommend you read this. And Zeffirelli’s kitsch is dire in this regard. I might add that the last scene, where Calàf comes pretty close to raping Turandot before she decides she wants it at the last second, makes me really unhappy. While I find ending the opera with Liù’s death (the point where Puccini’s score ends) overly abrupt, maybe it has more going for it than I realized when I saw that version in Munich last summer (that production that is not the last word in self-consciousness but in comparison to this one is positively enlightened).

Anyway, Zeffirelli’s theme park visuals still get applause, particularly the epic Act 2 set, but this is the sort of opera that I feel like I always need to apologize for: visuals that beat the viewer into submission, casual racism, and careless treatment of the characters and story. The Emperor and Turandot begin Act 2 so far upstage that they are rendered nearly inaudible, and it’s often hard to pick the leading characters out of the masses onstage. It has, when combined with the vivid banging of the score, an undeniable potency, but it’s not something I want anything to do with. The audience seemed to think they had gotten their money’s worth, but if you want to see something artistic I recommend redirecting yourself to Un ballo in maschera.

Musically this production was satisfactory, and in that respect I enjoyed it, though I wish the sets had not swallowed the singers’ voices as well as their presences. Conductor Dan Ettinger knows his Turandot–he conducted the Munich performance I saw last summer as well–and except for a few snafus with the chorus (and an unfortunate trumpet crack right before “Straniero, ascolta,”) the orchestra was strong. The vocal highlight was debuting soprano Janai Brugger as Liù. Granted, it’s easy for Liù to steal Turandot, but Brugger’s crystalline yet full lyric soprano was beautifully controlled and expressive, portraying a rare moment of vulnerability in this tank of a performance. Less happy was Marcello Giordani as Calàf. This incredibly uneven singer had a night that was more bad than good. While some high notes still can ring out with power and squillo, all but the top few notes are sour and hollow, and even a few notes sounded like yelps. As Turandot, Iréne Theorin had sufficient power (though the set wasn’t helping her), but I found this less impressive than her Brünnhilde last summer. Her vibrato seemed unwieldy and her tone often turned shrill. But she is a lovely actress in a role that is usually just stood through. James Morris was a horribly wobbly Timur, Dwayne Croft was a fine Ping but Tony Stevenson and Eduardo Valdes were unfortunately less than audible as Pang and Pong, as was Bernard Fitch as the Emperor. Ryan Speedo Green made an impressive Met debut in the small role of the Mandarin, a bass-baritone ringing out through the crowds.

But you’d have to pay me to go see this again.

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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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Die Walküre: Bring up the bodies

This Munich Ring cycle seems to be
slowly moving through time, having started Rheingold
in a timeless prehistory with a communal pagan celebration of nature and Walküre attaching itself firmly to the European fin de siècle. This is a period beloved of many a Wagner
director (above all Chéreau), who map the powerful but declining gods onto the
fading aristocracy. Kriegenburg isn’t as specific as Chéreau when it comes to
filling in the details, and the whole thing works more by vague suggestion than
allegory. The crowds of people, in Rheingold
representatives of natural elements and then Alberich’s slaves, are now
servants in a world that has developed social hierarchies.

That wasn’t much of a lead-in, sorry, I wanted to get right to the point because this was an excellent Walküre!
First: if you’d like to see this cycle for yourself, you can watch Götterdämmerung live on the Internet (or on a giant screen in Max-Joseph-Platz, should you be in Munich), free, tomorrow 15 July at 17:00 Munich time. I highly recommend it! More information here.

Wagner, Die Walküre. Bayerische Staatsoper Ring Zyklus B, 7/11/2012.
Musikalische Leitung Kent Nagano

Inszenierung Andreas Kriegenburg
Bühne Harald B. Thor
Kostüme Andrea Schraad
Licht Stefan Bolliger
Choreographie Zenta Haerter
Siegmund Klaus Florian Vogt
Hunding Ain Anger
Wotan Thomas J. Mayer
Sieglinde Anja Kampe
Brünnhilde Iréne Theorin
Fricka Sophie Koch

Sorry to be getting behind with the writing but this cycle hasn’t been getting much attention in English so I wanted to find time to do my usual medium-long form thing. I wrote most of the staging portion before I saw Siegfried on Friday. I will try to get to writing about that before I go see Götterdämmerung on Sunday.

The wheel is not being reinvented in this cycle, or perhaps more accurately it isn’t rolling anywhere it hasn’t rolled before. But it has a dramatic honesty and nuance that just works very consistently and naturally.

We open to see a slightly weakly choreographed battle between Siegmund and a bunch of people (Siegmund has perhaps been too busy of late taking the next swan to Bayreuth [along with Wotan, apparently] to keep up with his fight rehearsals, but he was in fine vocal health), then switch via stage elevator to chez Hunding. The expected tree is decorated with hanging bodies and populated by a silent and mysterious handmaiden staff. Hunding takes “this house looks like a funeral parlor!” to a whole new level by having the ladies washing corpses on some tables as the action proceeds. All together, this made me think of it as a less immortal variation on Valhalla, complete with Wunschmädchen and dead heroes. Siegmund and Sieglinde aren’t able to get close to each other for a long time and tend to tell their stories more to us than to each other, but when they finally do look at each other they make it count.

Valhalla is, in contrast, orderly, with a male staff. Hanging on the wall is a murky 19th-century landscape—an ironic gesture to the sort of gloomy backdrop so often used for this piece as well as the natural world the gods have subjugated. Fricka seems to be the forgotten trophy wife trying to keep the house together, and both she and Wotan repeatedly break glasses of water in anger, again overpowering a natural element. In the next scene the servants become corpses or rocks littering the Wälsungs’ escape route, where they are watched by Brünnhilde well before the start of her scene. As Siegmund fights Hunding, the two rise on the rear stage elevator, heartbreakingly far from Sieglinde’s reach. The act ends with Wotan running to kneel over Siegmund’s body.

Act III begins with the now-notorious horse ballet, a troupe of silver-clad ladies (more like very determined flamenco dancers than tappers) stomping and gasping at length a capella, which you can see on video at the bottom of this post. So far it is just about the only thing in the production unusual enough to upset anyone, but it’s a big thing and a few minutes into it the audience started yelling, a few with a force that suggested they should audition for Siegfried. I could take it or leave it, myself, I’m not offended but didn’t think it added anything and it made me wonder if I should be thankful that Kriegenburg hadn’t been more creative elsewhere. The following Ride of the Valkyries is excellent in the scary rather than the hearty mode, with the dead heroes in the form of bodies on tall sticks. The rest proceeds as expected with actual flames (smallish ones) surrounding Brünnhilde at the end, whose flickering seems much more appropriate to the music than their more popular, smoother projected cousins.

Kent Nagano’s conducting was more assertive this time around, and while it was still short in terms of tension and energy the situation was not as dire as Rheingold. The orchestra, while sometimes a little sloppy in the details, has a great sound when they get going.

The cast was very strong. Anja Kampe’s Sieglinde was the highlight of the performance for me. Though I am just about always susceptible to Sieglinde, Kampe has an incredibly vivid and sympathetic presence, abused and downtrodden but emerging as tragically triumphant. She sang with real abandon and her edgy high notes are exciting, her less than opulent middle voice not as much but she lives the music. Klaus Florian Vogt’s Siegmund was the rest of the audience’s favorite. He’s an odd duck, with a clear, almost blank voice that projects effortlessly despite its featherweight tone. Some of the music works well form him, notably a sweetly lyrical Winterstürme (also on video at the bottom of this post) and the clarion higher phrases of the Todesverkündigung, but this is a very low-lying role and many of the deeper parts were completely inaudible. As Siegmund I would prefer to hear a voice with more heroic heft rather than a Lohengrin innocent, but he had some moments. His acting is nothing like Kampe’s but he’s natural enough.

Iréne Theorin stood in for the ill Katarina Dalayman as Brünnhilde (Dalayman appears in the photos). She made her energetic, fist-pumping entrance straight from another, less subtle production (and proceeded to let out an exceptionally good battle cry), but over the course of the evening toned it down to fit in a little better. She is vocally convincing, with a big attractive tone and good sense for the musical line sometimes impeded by a large vibrato and a tendency to go sharp. For a last-minute replacement, a very classy performance.

Thomas Mayer was a fine Wotan and an improvement over Rheingold’s Johan Reuter. His voice is not large but is well-projected enough to always be audible, and his declamation of the text is clear and strong. He tired and delivered a slightly wooly Farewell but was both magisterial and sympathetic–I really like how this production shows the gods on a human scale without histrionics. Sophie Koch was again an impressive Fricka, and a physically very energetic one. Ain Anger was a young and lyrical but appropriately nasty Hunding. The only real vocal hitch was the Valkyries; it is hard to believe that the Bavarians couldn’t get together a stronger, more convincingly dramatic bunch. When all were singing together it was alright, but individually many sounded underpowered or ragged.

While this production is somewhat quiet, I’m finding a lot to like in its subtlety and humanity. (The only thing that really escaped me in this evening was some V-Effekt business with water bottles during the final scene that seemed to come out of nowhere.) I’m not sure how it will revive—it is the detailed character work that largely makes it special—but right now there’s a lot to like.

Photos copyright Wilfred Hösl. (More photos appear below the videos.)


The Horse Ballet (only a bit of the dance, then the Ride of the Valkyries)

More photos:

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Turandot: Love bug

So, you have an opera with a frankly barbaric score and libretto. Say, Turandot. What is a violent, dangerous setting for this that doesn’t imply that Chinese society is prone to these kinds of things? I know, insects! They’re vicious, right?

This is the most spectacular production I’ve seen at the Volksoper, and orchestrally one of the best as well. And the basic idea of setting Turandot with bugs is kind of nifty. Unfortunately, it’s the only idea director Renaud Doucet and designer André Barbe (the team responsible for last fall’s Rusalka) seem to have had. Sure looks cool, though!

Puccini, Turandot. Volksoper Wien, 3/28/2011. Production (revival) directed by Renaud Doucet, sets by André Barbe. Conducted by Enrico Dovico with Anda-Louise Bogza (Turandot), Mario Zhang (Caláf), Melba Ramos (Liú).


The production starts off rather well. We’re in some community consisting entirely of insects of various types and statuses. Some are workers, some guards, some officials, and some leaders. The costumes are colorful and spectacular, and the dark backdrop and dim lighting gives it a scary air. A tall black figure with enormous talons appears early in Act 1 and it seems implied that she is Turandot, but it turns out that Turandot is actually a much less interesting fuzzy white figure. The talon lady is Death or something (having some role in Prince of Persia’s execution, and later Liù’s method of suicide), but like most things in this production she exists more as a visual gesture than a dramatic one.

It’s all quite intimidating and inhuman and ceremonial, and while it feels perfect for the music’s violence, the inhumanity also proves to be the production’s biggest stumbling block. Despite the visual impact of the big moments, the staging doesn’t do a very good job of telling the story and exploring the characters. I don’t think this was inevitable consequence of the buggy-ness of it all, but it’s how it turned out. The overwhelming visuals, monumental costumes, and static blocking don’t enable the singers to emerge from the atmosphere as personalities, and the concept is too static to pick up the slack. Barbe’s choreography (I assume, there is no other choreographer credited) was a weak point, as in Rusalka, and even when performed by bugs resembles Jazzercise. So despite a promising start, the production proved disappointing as it failed to develop over the course of the subsequent acts. There are many nice visual touches, though.

Liù and Calaf

The Volksoper orchestra, conducted by Enrico Dovico, tackled the score with enthusiasm and significant decibel count, sounding bigger and more polished than they usually do. None of the singers had the power to compete. Anda-Louise Bogza has a large though not enormous Italianate soprano with a broad vibrato and warm if sometimes spread tone. She had some exciting moments and to her credit mostly sang and did not scream, but lacks the cutting high C’s to be a truly memorable Turandot. Mario Zhang’s dark and muscular sound and stiff phrasing did little to bring life to Calaf, who I’m pretty sure now is the actual villain of the piece. Melba Ramos had a shaky start as Liu but mustered the best overall singing of the cast with a slightly covered, smoky lyric soprano and good dynamic control. Supporting roles were adequately sung, though the Emperor headed south over the course of each phrase, ending each painfully flat.

With some more focused Personenregie (to be fair, it is a revival) and more Konzept for Acts 2 and 3 (sorry, there are some things you really need German for), this could have been a lot better. Pittsburgh residents should note that Barbe and Doucet are currently in your town with a second, much more traditional Turandot. They recently compared the two productions in an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The US gets a more traditional version, because opera with bugs apparently falls under the category of Shit We Americans Really Can’t Handle. (The Neuenfels Nabucco with bees would probably go over badly as well. And isn’t there a Claus Guth Barbiere with bugs in Leipzig?)

At the Volksoper, two performances remain, on April 7 and 10. You can also see a short video on their website.

Photos copyright Volksoper Wien.

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