Puccini's last opera, posthumously completed after the composer passed away at 66, merits a production that matches the instinctive viscera of the narrative, dynamic singers who can transform through the libretto's big transitions, and a prepared conductor to flesh-out and develop all the modernity found in the composer's dynamic score.
The new production of Turandot for Teatro alla Scala by Giorgio Barberio Corsetti offered little in the way of Puccini lust, unable to compliment the conductor's dramatic tale of the man-eating ice princess who haunts Giuseppe Adami's and Renato Simoni's libretto.
Under Puccini's pen, Turandot was riddled (haaaaaa!) with developmental issues from the conception, later finished by the composer's former student Franco Alfano, which finally had its premiere on April 25, 1926 at La Scala, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. The Luccan conductor had passed away two years prior from complications of throat surgery (an infection brought on by a fish bone eaten two years earlier, although rumor is that he had throat cancer) on 29 November 1924, his body temporarily mourned in Milan. At the memorial, Toscanini, in reverence to his colleague, conducted the La Scala orchestra in the Requiem from Puccini's second opera, Edgar.
Although Valery Gergiev conducted the first round of replications at La Scala, Milanese conductor Daniele Callegari was brought in for the later shows, and his interpretation of Puccini's dynamic composition was monochromatic and uneven. We're calling him the Eliot Spitzer of opera -- for steamrolling through all of Puccini's good graces ("I'm a f**king steamroller"!)
Puccini's Turandot burns with its cinematic, crisply-sweeping cadenze. Puccini was highly regarded for his accessibility to contemporary music (contemporary to his time, obvs) and Turandot is a testament to that, crackling with wit, exoticism, and wispy melodies. But Callegari subdued all of Puccini's sparkle and playful idiosyncrasies. At its worst moments, it listed and wobbled like a gutter-bound bowling ball, relying on the brass and percussion to add an ersatz significance. At its best moments, Callegari conducted with a sweetness that pushed the notes delicately ahead, undoubtedly skilled at what he was doing, although inappropriate for Puccini's expressiveness. (Although it worked well enough for nostalgic moments like Act II's Ping/Pang/Pong "Ho una casa nell'Honan" and Act I's chorus proposition "Perche tarda la luna?")
Giorgio Barberio Corsetti's staging downplayed the dramatic thrust of the gripping fable, an underdeveloped testament to Puccini's font -- the adaptation of Carlo Gozzi's 1762 commedia dell'arte, Turandot. It was robbed of the beautiful capitulation of Turandot's heart, stripped of dramatic entrances and paces -- only the Princess's robes distinguished her from plebs plebis.
Despite the challenges of the undercooked staging, California soprano Lise Lindstrom (who shared the role with Maria Guleghina) rallied with great authority. With her declarative aria "In questa reggia", she blew the saddle off the horse (and our Wolford stockings off our legs) with her vibrantly-ringing voice and toe-curling power. She brought a visceral, soul-bearing pathos to the character -- frankly, we could imagine her clawing into prospective suitors' chests like Mola Ram, the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom villain, ripping-out their still-beating hearts. KALI MA! KALI MA! Lindstrom had that whole Birgit Nilsson dramatic soprano thing going on with a magnetic stage presence, although we'd already seen her sparkle as Turandot in NYC for her Metropolitan Opera debut 2.5 years ago, so we knew what we were in for.
Subdued costumes and sets by Giorgio Barberio Corsetti and Cristian Taraborrelli turned the libretto's Peking palace into a rural, dusty province instead of the regal Chinese dynasty empire, the imperial city postured like a row of beachfront bathhouses. Big ups at least for keeping it dignified and somewhat elegant without clumsy Asian stereotypes.
Video projections -- atmospheric moon and clouds -- were thankfully never cheesy, although they were at times distracting. Choreographer Ricky Sim was a delight, evoking Puccini's heaven-bound score with light-as-air tumblers. Act I began with an acrobat descending from silks in the sky in a fluid, ethereal vision. Ping, Pang, and Pong each had a doppelgänger tumbler who acted out in spirited, elastic acrobatics.
Calaf was American tenor Stuart Neill (splitting the role with Marco Berti) in a brown Obi-Wan Kenobi robe, and his Nessun Dorma garnered a spontaneous round of applause. Liù was Ekaterina Scherbachenko (alternating with Maija Kovalevska) who brought a sweet portrayal of Calaf's loyal slave. Marco Spotti sang an engaging Timur. The Masks -- Ping, Pang, and Pong -- sung by Angelo Veccia, Luca Casalin, and Carlo Bosi respectively -- meshed into an easy camaraderie, a spirited performance by the trio at the opening of Act II. La Scala's excellent chorus, as always, under the loving direction of chorus master Bruno Casoni, was a study in preparedness and richness.
After the convergence of a steamrolled Turandot, it served as a pithy reminder that despite good casting, opera's strength at times can be reduced to the sum of its parts.