It’s no surprise that Turandot is one of the most performed and best loved operas of all time, coming in at number 15 in the Operabase league table. Its beautiful music and lavish orchestration, along with its very exciting and exotic story are what operatic dreams are made of. The evil princess, who submits all her suitors to a cruel test, with failure punishable by death, provides the perfect starting point for a dramatically charged and emotionally rich opera, and it is this depth and excitement that make Turandot one of my favourite operas in the repertoire.

Kevin Conners (Pang), Emanuele D'Aguanno (Pong), Fabio Previati (Ping), in Bayerische Staatsoper's p © Wilfried Hösl
Kevin Conners (Pang), Emanuele D'Aguanno (Pong), Fabio Previati (Ping), in Bayerische Staatsoper's p
© Wilfried Hösl

Though originally set in China’s long-forgotten, legendary past, the new Bayerische Staatsoper production catapults it forward, past the present, into an impending (though hopefully imaginary) future: the year 2046. Europe’s financial crisis of the early 2000s led to near total economic collapse and it was only China’s purchasing of all the continent’s natural resources which saved it from ruin. Europe is now part of a vast Chinese empire and subject to the cruelty of its princess, Turandot, who is determined to recover every last cent her ancestors gave out. This very thorough change of the opera’s storyline sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it does, and extraordinarily well. Puccini’s score is so lush and rich that it seems almost cinematic, and so the opera’s modernisation doesn’t jar with the music at all. Though perhaps involving some intermeshing of eastern cultures, the whole production seems to have a manga/animé feel to it, being set in a legendary and oddly traditional future, rather than a legendary past. The transportation of the drama to take place in a China-ruled Europe subverts the original orientalist undercurrents of the opera; rather than a romanticised orient with western music overlaid with generic exoticisms and few token Chinese melodies, it is perhaps Europe which is exoticised here, turned into the other by a dominant Chinese self.

Visually this production is very striking, and almost post-apocalyptic in its combination of dominant dark greys and browns with flashes of vibrant oranges and greens. Roland Olbeter’s set is versatile and thought provoking, and the giant “eye” which is suspended above the centre of the stage (consciously evoking George Orwell’s 1984) provides a focal point for much of the drama, and particularly for Turandot herself who is often positioned at its centre as the all-seeing, all-powerful overlord of this future dictatorship. The costumes, by Catalan designer Chu Uroz, are equally arresting, juxtaposing traditional Chinese dress and patterns with the very contemporary styles which are coming out of China at the moment, all with a clear, unified and personal style. The video projections from Franc Aleu were also mostly effective, with some very creative effects making the stage into an endless urban cityscape, turning “Nessun Dorma” into an almost timeless evocation of the 24/7 city life which is now commonplace in today’s metropolitan centres throughout the world.

However, it is also the video element that is my main criticism with the production. In addition to his fantastic 2D projections, onto the “eye” were projected a number of 3D graphics, reminiscent of a Windows 98 screensaver. Had the images been in 2D I probably wouldn’t have objected to (or even remarked on) them, but the fact that they were projected in 3D seemed somewhat gratuitous. The noise of 2,100 people putting on cardboard 3D glasses (the red/cyan type which reduce colour perception and can cause headaches, rather than the polarising glasses used in cinemas) was distracting, and sometimes occurred at important musical junctures. It is regrettable that such a fantastic production was marred by something so costly and unnecessary.

The Baryerisches Staatsorchester under the direction of Zubin Mehta played with passion and intensity, bringing Puccini’s technicolour soundscape to life. Mehta’s strong sense of the drama gave the music perfect pacing and drive. American soprano Jennifer Wilson gave an excellent performance as Turandot, truly inhabiting the princess’ complex character of seemingly effortless cruelty combined with undercurrents of uncertainty. As Calaf, Marco Berti was vocally assured and dramatically powerful. However, for me his voice seemed too hard-edged for the delicacy and lyricism required of the role, and so we never saw the character’s sensitivity. Ping, Pang and Pong were by turns comic and dangerous, just as they should be, while baritone Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s colourfully lyrical Timur was tragic and moving and beautifully sung. As Liù, Ekaterina Scherbachenko somewhat stole the show, with beautiful pianissimos, movingly sung arias and a unerring sense of the character’s tragedy, and perhaps that was the intention of this production. Puccini died before completing the opera and it was completed by Franco Alfano at the publisher’s request. It is almost always performed with Alfano’s completion, but here it is only Puccini’s original music which we hear. Rather than Turandot and Calaf ending as a loving couple, Liù’s death becomes the ending and focal point of the opera. This Turandot is a true tragedy, without absolution.

Modernisations of opera all too often seem like a director’s vision superimposed onto the opera. What Carlus Padrissa achieves here is a perfect symbiosis of music and drama, without ever compromising on his very personal artistic vision; this new vision of Turandot seems to be suggested by the opera itself. A good performance of any opera should make you feel alive, and this one achieves that in every minute from beginning to end, and even beyond into the rapturous standing ovation. Puccini has never been so alive.