There always seems to be the same problem with opera productions set in the future. Without budgets big enough to create the same sort of shiny visual slickness we’re used to in modern sci-fi films, these stagings tend to be reminiscent of TV series c. 1975. So it is with Balázs Kovalik’s new production of Turandot at Oper Leipzig.
Heike Scheele’s set presents a vast grey honeycomb structure surrounding the stage. A grand fan intermittently revolves at the back and a walkway, highlighted with fluorescent strip lights, cuts across the centre of the stage picture. The ‘Popolo di Pekino’ wear black tracksuits and shades (costumes by Sebastian Ellrich), each with an unexplained metallic patch on their temple which they touch at moments of exultation. Guards in padded grey suits keep them in order with futuristic pointy sticks.
It’s a decent idea, to create a sense of Turandot’s realm as explicitly dystopian – the oriental niceties of the work itself do little to hide the unpleasantness of much of its scenario – and Lorenzo Fioroni’s 2008 Deutsche Oper production does something similar, albeit without the futuristic angle. Kovalik is also to be commended for an attempt to flesh out the character of Turandot, allowing her to appear in Act I to show a certain compassion for the crowd, as well as display an attraction for the Unknown Prince.
The Persian Prince is a little boy, meanwhile, who makes subsequent reappearances to both Turandot and Calaf – presumably as a ghostly vision, since we have already by then seen him disappear headfirst into what I assumed was some fatal contraption at the back of the stage. I rather liked Martin Petzold’s strongly-sung Emperor Altoum, unhinged and distinctly unimperious; and the wheeling on of a Chinese bathing and massage facility for Ping, Pang and Pong’s nostalgic trio at the start of Act II is a witty touch, too. There were further hints of a lost past in the lavish ceremonial costumes that Liù and Timur were revealed to be wearing under their tracksuits.
In an interesting programme interview, Kovalik says lots of intelligent things about the piece, highlighting, for instance, its parallels with Die Frau ohne Schatten, which he directed in Leipzig in 2014. That this show doesn't feel as original, witty or incisive as Kovalik’s Strauss staging is, I think, in part down to its visually unconvincing vision of the future, as well as a slight vagueness about what this dystopian world is and how it functions. But it also in some ways down to the acting and Personenregie.
Leonardo Caimi’s Calaf has the notes, even if his smooth edged voice lacks a trumpety core and thins out as it heads up. His characterisation, though, remains firmly rooted in the realm of stock tenorial gestures, with little apparent guidance from the director. Jennifer Wilson’s Turandot was vocally secure – as you’d expect from an experienced Elektra and Brünnhilde – but the timbre is a little flat, short on brilliance and steel. She acts admirably, though, in a series of faintly preposterous costumes.
Olena Tokar’s Liù was perhaps the vocal pick of the bunch, the Ukraine-born Leipzig ensemble member negotiating the role (arguably a little big for her nimble, lyric instrument) movingly and musically. Randall Jakobsh’s Timur was impressively resonant, if dramatically somewhat stolid. In a quick-witted, amusing trio of ministers, it was Jonathan Michie’s Ping that stood out for his vivid acting and virile baritone.
Matthias Foremny conducted the first-night performance with an admirable patience and sense of control, and unleashed his full forces with impressive power when required. The Gewandhausorchester offered luxurious orchestral support, with some beautifully rounded and imposing brass playing as well as some exquisite solos from wind and strings. The massed choruses made a fabulous noise, too. Despite my reservations, the final bars, in which they removed their sunglasses to greet a new dawn, were difficult to resist.
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