An obsessively man-hating princess, a slave girl who really needs to open up a bit more about her feelings, a prince who actually fell in love at first sight, and an unhealthily large dose of exoticism? Why, it can only be Puccini’s Turandot. Saturday marked the première of the Royal Swedish Opera’s new production of Puccini’s final opera, with none other than Nina Stemme taking on the title role for the first time.

Nina Stemme and Riccardo Massi © Carl Thorborg
Nina Stemme and Riccardo Massi
© Carl Thorborg

In this production, the chorus, originally an angry, bloodthirsty mob of Chinese people, was turned into an angry, blood-thirsty mob of an opera audience, dressed to the nines, and seated in replicas of the chairs of the Royal Opera’s auditorium. It might not be one of the most inventive devices in modern opera directing, but it certainly made a huge impact. The chorus egged on the singers in front of them, who were dressed in what one might call more traditional dress (although by no means was it the Zeffirelli kind of traditional), before leaving the stage after all of the interesting bits had happened, only to return after a while, champagne flutes in hand, for the next big moment. This left a lot of room for the more intimate scenes of the opera, completely uninteresting to the on-stage audience only in search of thrills and spectacle.

From the very beginning, there was always a certain degree of interactivity between the chorus and the other performers – from the executioner’s sword, or the scrolls with the answers to Turandot’s riddles being passed around, to the chorus actually interacting with the singers, like the women of the chorus assisting with seducing Calàf to reveal his name in Act III. By and large this all worked, and where the production ultimately failed is where the opera itself failed with it. After Turandot and Calàf kiss in the third act (mere minutes after Liù has just killed herself, mind you), the audience gets all excited for the imminent wedding, never once stopping even to question what has just happened. In a way, it makes sense, because this is not a critical audience. As long as the stream of executions and high drama is kept constant, it doesn’t care. But still, the ending could – and should – have been questioned.

Perhaps the most problematic element of the production was making Calàf out to be Puccini himself. He seems to be on some kind of quest to actually find Turandot, both the character and the opera proper, which the real Puccini did have large difficulties writing. Still, much isn’t done with it, and the result is that Calàf/Puccini is left as little more than your regular outsider, coming from far away to woo the princess. Another outsider is the slave girl Liù, who in the opera is just another slave girl (who just happens to have taken care of Calàf’s father), but in the original Gozzi play, she is called Adelma, and is yet another princess, although she has been run out of her kingdom and is now living as a slave. Both Calàf and Liù are outsiders, dressed in Western clothes, and apparently from an entirely different era.

Vocally, the production was something of a mixed bag, erring more on the side of “generally rather good” than “complete catastrophe”. The Calàf of Riccardo Massi was at times very beautifully sung, although Massi’s dark, almost baritonal tenor was not really suited to Calàf. It lacked a certain edge, which, although his voice was sizeable enough, rendered him almost inaudible at times. His top notes were easy, but generally lacked excitement, something which led to a rather uneventful “Nessun dorma”. Still, both his singing and his acting during the riddle scene were riveting. It must, though, be said that he sounded somewhat puny standing next to Nina Stemme’s Turandot (although most people do, to be fair). On the male side, both the vocal and dramatic highlight(s) of the evening were the Ping, Pang and Pong of Ola Eliasson, Daniel Ralphsson, and Niklas Björling Rygert. All displayed excellent comic timing with some striking stylised gestured and costumes that looked more like multicoloured Mondrian paintings than anything else in the first act, and they gave honest, more people-like portrayals in the second act (although never forgetting their commedia dell’arte roots). Their singing was also uniformly excellent, especially during the “Ho una casa nell’Honan” ensemble.

On the female side, things were rather better. Yana Kleyn, a young Russian soprano, triumphed as Liù, spinning out gorgeous lines with a very beautiful and rather large instrument. Still, she never seemed very dramatically involved, and both “Signore, ascolta” and her death scene left me feeling rather cold, despite being marvellously sung – especially the death scene.

You could say that the chorus were the scene-stealers both vocally and dramatically for the first half of the opera. Then, in the second scene of the second act, Nina Stemme entered. Turandot might not be her greatest part – for one thing, it’s ever so slightly too high – but she still made quite the impact. The first thing that was readily apparent was just the sheer power of her voice. The woman certainly knows how to sing loud! But it wasn’t all shouting, and Stemme delivered a nuanced and dynamic performance, always being heard over the orchestra. Her acting was also nothing less than riveting, especially during the riddle scene. The absolute highlight of the whole evening was hearing her soaring above all of the other soloists, chorus and orchestra at the end of Act II. From her first entrance onwards, it was clear that this was Nina Stemme’s opera.

The Royal Swedish Opera’s new production of Puccini’s Turandot is generally very well thought-out, and on the whole done very well. Even though there are a few inconsistencies, they are mostly of little importance, and although the production could do with a few more question marks here and there, by and large it is successful in what it tries to impart to the audience. It was also very well-cast with some terrific acting and some downright incredible feats of singing. During the interval I tweeted that whatever the outcome of the opera, Nina Stemme would win. Turandot might not get it her way in the end, but no matter how you look at it; this was definitely Nina Stemme’s night.