Question marks dominate the stage in Andreas Homoki’s production of Puccini’s Turandot. They are shown on various television screens and as a giant, six-metre tall cut-out on a giant gate, bisecting the stage. The question marks serve as incessant reminders of the riddles and questions so central to this problematic opera. Yet after this puzzling, incoherent and at times downright lazy production, I was left with only one question: Why?

<i>Turandot</i> in Oslo © Erik Berg
Turandot in Oslo
© Erik Berg

The main goal of Homoki’s Turandot seems to be to close in on the opera’s brutal streak, its use of executions as public entertainment, recasting the entire opera as a sort of perverse television programme. Ping, Pang and Pong serve as the hosts, looking frightfully fetching in sparkly, coloured dinner jackets. The production does not seem overly concerned with the Chinese elements of the story, and they are mostly limited to the odd allusion to Communist China – the chorus and many of the main characters are dressed in blue, the colour of the emblematic Zhongshan suit. While one could certainly draw many interesting parallels between the fictionalised China of Puccini’s opera and China under Mao, Homoki instead seems to lose interest.

While Turandot doesn’t necessarily have to be all grand spectacle and crowd scenes (much, if not all the spectacle was stripped away from this production), this staging attempted to create a false intimacy by simply removing characters entirely, having them deliver their lines off-stage (via tinny speakers) or enter at somewhat opportune moments. Turandot’s monologue “In questa reggia” was delivered to an empty stage, Irina Rindzuner as Turandot collapsing over furniture, as if to suggest inner turmoil.

Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs (Turandot) and Diego Torre (Calaf) © Erik Berg
Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs (Turandot) and Diego Torre (Calaf)
© Erik Berg

While impressively loud, Rindzuner’s Turandot was lacking in defining characteristics: no ice, no fire, no menace, no vulnerability. While she attempted the odd menacing stare, she never had enough of a stage presence to pull them off. As Calaf, Henrik Engelsviken struggled with a hoarse, dry voice, fighting to be heard over the orchestra. Almost constantly at full throttle, there was no volume left for climactic moments which, along with strained high notes, made for an underwhelming “Nessun dorma”. There was little in the sense of Puccinian lushness, Engelsviken singing distressingly cleanly, almost analytically, with nary a portamento in sight.

Eli Kristin Hansveen’s Liù suffered from somewhat indeterminate pitch to begin with, although she gained focus just before “Signore, ascolta”. Her characterisation never went much beyond whimpering, but her Liù started showing some backbone during her death scene. However, that was soon negated by her death being a rather unceremonious collapse on the floor. Guenes Guerle was in robust voice as Timur, perhaps a little too robust for the elderly king of Tartary. However, he spent much of the evening pointlessly doddering about on stage, walking cane in front, as if to constantly underline his blindness. As Ping, Pang and Pong, Espen Langvik, Marius Roth Christensen and Thorbjørn Gulbrandsøy impressed with athletic stage presence and well-blended ensemble singing. Still, they were often swallowed by the orchestra, and the tempi were so fast that they often struggled with diction.

Espen Langvik (Ping), Marius Roth Christensen (Pang) and Thorbjørn Gulbrandsøy (Pong) © Erik Berg
Espen Langvik (Ping), Marius Roth Christensen (Pang) and Thorbjørn Gulbrandsøy (Pong)
© Erik Berg

The production also relied heavily on amplification, with several choral passages (including all of the children’s choruses) and smaller roles removed from the stage altogether, sometimes being shown on a nearby television screen. While this sort of amplification can be interesting when done well, I was mainly struck at the tinny sound of the speakers. The chorus sounded wonderful in the large crowd scenes, with a big, full sound, although there was little in terms of dynamic variation. Still, that is something one can get away with in this opera, at least to a certain extent.

The orchestra played with a plush, big sound under the baton of conductor John Helmer Fiore, yet there was little time so savour the lush orchestral sonorities. Fiore’s tempi seemed oddly rushed, giving the singers difficulty with simply keeping up, not to mention getting the words across. This production opted to do the version of Turandot left incomplete by Puccini at his death in 1924, with no completion by Franco Alfano or anyone else. This, along with Fiore’s rushed tempi meant that the opera was over in a breezy hour and 45 minutes.

Andreas Homoki’s Turandot received its first production at the Dresden Semperoper in 2004 and still serves as the company’s repertory production. Why it was this production the Norwegian National Opera decided to use for their new Turandot, I am really not quite sure.