While the rest of the world pays lip service to equal opportunity, Slovakia is quietly producing a generation of strong female film and stage directors. Prague audiences have been fortunate to see two of the best currently working in opera – Sláva Daubnerová, whose no-holds-barred Lolita added a dark beauty to this season, and Zuzana Gilhuus, with a prescient take on Turandot. Both would be better described as auteurs, directors with a vision that incorporates every aspect of a piece, from dramatic arc to design.

Jan Ježek (Emperor Altoum)
© Patrik Borecký

Gilhuusʼ strength is visual impact, starting with the opening scene of Turandot, which places the chorus in a pit, like a muddy river of the lowest caste beneath a shining bridge, surrounded by pole-wielding male dancers. The effect is abstract with an Eastern flavor, and the dramatic lighting – bright spots on singers otherwise enveloped in darkness – sets a foreboding tone. Winning a princessʼ hand may be in the offing, but itʼs immediately clear that this is a grim, life-or-death endeavor.

Gilhuus is particularly adept at using visuals as metaphors. Emperor Altoum appears in the second act as a remote figure atop a towering, brilliant white robe framed by a sun that would put Louis XIV to shame. Or is it a stylized chrysanthemum? Metaphors can be as confusing as they are revealing, especially in this production. When a white-powdered man wearing nothing but a loincloth does an interpretive dance across the bridge in the first act, is it a symbolic comment or the Prince of Persia on his way to the chopping block? He proves to be the latter, though only the first of many dancers who flit across the stage like dreams, half-real, half-imagined.

Alžběta Poláčková (Liù)
© Patrik Borecký

This tends to obscure the narrative – not a serious problem in such a well-known piece, perhaps, but indicative of deeper deficiencies in nuance and pacing. Gilhuusʼ predilection with visuals flattens the entire production into 2D: the characters are cardboard, emotions seem artificial, and the action moves at a steady unbroken clip, like watching a film reel unspool. The riddles in the second act dictate a different, more dramatic rhythm, and the denouement demands some emotional interaction. Otherwise, the singers seem captives of the striking sets.

The elaborate staging also creates some mechanical problems, as key scenes have to be played in front of a closed curtain to accommodate set changes. This doesnʼt effect the antics of Ping, Pang and Pong, but it isolates the reconciliation of Calaf and Turandot, whose great romantic moment unfolds in a relatively stark, sterile setting. And by then, Gilhuus seems to have run out of ideas. The curtain opens to reveal a milling crowd on an otherwise bare stage, and when the crowd parts, Calaf and Turandot retreat upstage for a final embrace in front of a blank white screen.

© Patrik Borecký

The singing in the second week of performances was serviceable, but for the most part uninspired. Both Eliška Weissová (Turandot) and Michal Lehotský (Calaf) seem better-suited for Wagnerian roles than leads in an Italian romance, especially given Lehotský's top notes. Alžběta Poláčková, one of the National Theaterʼs strongest company members, nearly stole the show as Liù, turning in a particularly moving performance in the third act when she offers to sacrifice her life for Calaf. Another house regular, Jiří Hájek, played Ping with aplomb.

Boris Hanečkaʼs costumes were front and center for much of the evening, pushing boundaries with mixed success. Male dancers dressed as executioners and female dancers in outrageously high, scalloped collars added touches of wit and whimsy. But Ping, Pang and Pong looked ridiculous in long trains of felt and absurd headgear, like mandarins from Mars. And Turandot appeared to be wearing a miniature radar antenna in place of a tiara.

One thing visitors to the National Theater can always count on is a strong musical showing, and this was no exception. Jaroslav Kyzlink led an energetic performance in the pit, crafting warm melodies and bright colors. And the chorus was sensational, dominating much of the evening with powerful blasts of fear and celebration.

Still, the overall atmosphere of the production might best be described as funereal – overly dark in both actual lighting and mood, an odd choice for what is usually regarded and treated as a fairy tale. And an artistic choice made long ago. Yet it could hardly have been more appropriate, with China in the news for all the wrong reasons these days. Though no one planned it, there was powerful resonance between lines like “No one in Peking may sleep tonight” and a photo published widely that same day showing one person (in a face mask) riding an otherwise empty subway car in Beijing. In terms of capturing the Zeitgeist, Gilhuus could hardly have done better.