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Recordings

Giacomo Puccini: Turandot
24 Mar 2006

PUCCINI: Turandot

Here is a Turandot to watch with the sound off—not because the singers misfire so badly, although no one really impresses.

Giacomo Puccini: Turandot
Act III completion by Luciano Berio

Gabriele Schnaut, Johan Botha, Cristina Gallardo-Domas, Paata Burchuladze, Wiener Philharmoniker, Staatsopernchor, Tolzer Knabenchor, Valery Gergiev (cond.)

Opus Arte DVUS-OPTURSFR

$29.99  Click to buy

David Pountney’s production offers a succession of amazing stage pictures, but despite the best efforts of a partisan booklet essay writer and Mr. Pountney himself, interviewed in an extra feature, none of his intentions convincingly illuminate Puccini’s opera. Pountney sees Turandot as a depiction of the anti-humanistic world of the ‘20s and ‘30s, but instead of throwing light on the action, his random flashes of inspiration confuse the eye and mind. Trying to view this Turandot as a valid version of the opera becomes an increasingly frustrating exercise. Just sit back and enjoy the pretty pictures.

And what pictures. Turandot appears inside a huge bronze-like head, which cracks open to reveal her standing as if 50 feet tall, inside a golden gown cascading down to the floor. Later, when Calaf solves the third riddle, she collapses and leaves the gown behind, spending the rest of the opera in a nightgown. The citizens of the city go through mechanical motions in row after row of barred cells, as of a prison. In act three, the bronze head has split into two and fallen to the floor, and the characters clamber over its sloping sides.

Why don’t these brilliant tableaus add up to a successful production? Arguably, Pountney has misinterpreted the opera. He even denies, in the interview, that Turandot is a fairy tale, although the first booklet essay lays out its origins as one concisely. He also shrugs off a question about the kitsch element of the opera with a sly grin, which suggests he believes—he comes close to saying so—that kitsch sums up Turandot. Without true faith in the worth of the opera, no wonder Pountney’s flash can’t produce any light.

Pountney also needs to consider the value of movement—despite the visual imagination, too often the singers have little to do. Direction means much more than coming up with brilliant rationales for outrageous stage designs. Sometimes the singers need to be told how to behave and why.

A problematic cast struggles to bring this concept to life. In the extra-feature interview, Gabriele Schnaut looks attractive and speaks with intelligence. Unfortunately, as made-up and costumed here, she makes for a scary, unappealing Princess. Her top notes, always controversial, fly out like pitchless shrieks—neither flat nor sharp, just indeterminate notes in siren mode.

Calaf apparently holds no interest for Pountney—Johan Botha, wandering the set with no particular aim, sings the entire role in a dull gray suit (of considerable size). Botha moves well most of the time, although after climbing on top of the broken bronze head he can be seen gingerly finding his way down. He has ample voice and range for this challenging role—but no beauty. The “Nessun dorma” gets no reception at all, perhaps partly due to the direction, or Gergiev’s momentum, but surely a dynamic rendition would have earned the tenor an ovation.

Cristina Gallardo-Domas takes the signing honors, but Lius so often do. Her petite frame emphasizes the character’s pathos, though it makes one wonder about the wisdom of her attraction to her hefty Calaf. Liu’s devotion to Paata Burchuladze’s Timur also needs some explanation, as his shaggy bass makes for a less than appealing figure.

Some may be drawn to this DVD for its status as the only complete version of Turandot with the recent Berio completion, replacing the Alfano. It may still be early to make firm declarations about the fate of this revised ending; in Pountney’s mise en scene, the eeriness and sparseness of Berio’s work works well enough. For your reviewer, the shift away from Puccini’s exquisitely melodic opulence to the arid world of late 20th-Century composition will probably always remain an unpleasant metamorphosis.

Gergiev’s conducts brilliantly, shifting gears from passion and bombast to lyricism and beauty. With a better cast, one could darken the screen and listen to the DVD with appreciation for Gergiev’s and the Vienna Phil’s contribution.

Sound off or picture off? Not an attractive dilemma. Lovers of this opera should search out another DVD version.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

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