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Refreshing ‘Turandot’ brings new perspective to ending

© Rikimaru Hotta / Tokyo Bunka Kaikan

From left: Irene Theorin as Turandot, Eri Nakamura as Liu and Teodor Ilincai as Calaf in Act III of “Turandot” at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan in Taito Ward, Tokyo.

By Yukiko Kishinami / Japan News Staff Writer“Nessun dorma,” one of the most famous operatic arias of all time, sounded fresh like never before.

The renowned aria sung by Teodor Ilincai as Calaf did not stand out disproportionately in the July 12 world premiere of the new Tokyo production of Puccini’s “Turandot” at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan hall in Taito Ward.

This likely stems from conductor Kazushi Ono taking a pleasantly fast tempo throughout the production, which helped shed the opera of excessive grandness and rightly made the aria a part of the story.

Ono’s refreshing musical approach came in tandem with the conception of director Alex Olle, who prepared a surprise ending that left the audience stunned.

In “Turandot,” the title character is an imperial princess traumatized by the tragedy of her ancestress who was tormented and killed by a man. So she presents her suitors with three riddles and beheads all who can’t solve them. No man can have her, but she becomes moved by Calaf’s kiss — that’s how the opera usually ends, although no one knows how Puccini would have ended the work because he died in 1924 before completing it. What traditionally appears in the opera after Liu’s death was completed by Franco Alfano.

In any case, this ending, which has become all too familiar, requires directors to depict Turandot’s abrupt and convenient change of mind in the last 10 minutes or so. Olle refused to do this.

The director begins the production with the miming of the ancestor’s story, then he steadily handles the opera’s first two acts, doing nothing particularly outrageous. It all changes in the third and final act, in which Liu, a slave girl in love with Calaf, kills herself to protect him. Usually, the poor girl is forgotten after Calaf and other characters briefly express their grief over her death. In this production, Liu dies on the same circular dais Turandot occupies. The princess seems curiously intrigued by the girl’s act all while Calaf declares his love to Turandot. At the very end, Turandot and Calaf come forward, hand in hand, then the princess does something shocking to end the opera.

Understandably, there was some booing during the curtain call by audience members who obviously came to see a fairy-tale ending. Olle likely tried to update the opera, which was very much written from a male point of view. By putting a focus on Liu’s death, the director probably made Turandot come to her senses about what she did to many suitors, making her stay faithful to her sympathy for her ancestor. In that sense, perhaps this is a “Turandot” for women, which inevitably leaves Calaf at a loose end.

Visually, the production is carefully crafted not to give away any clue as to where and when the story unfolds. The massive set designed by Alfons Flores features multiple staircases on both sides of the stage where chorus members cluster around. The imperial palace of Turandot and her emperor father descends from above like a square UFO. The costumes designed by Lluc Castells deliberately avoided looking particularly Asian, although Turandot’s white dress in the first two acts looks inspired by kimono, a reminder that this is a Tokyo “Turandot.” The creative team also includes associate director Susana Gomez and lighting designer Urs Schonebaum.

Soprano Irene Theorin’s mellifluous and powerful voice is fitting for Turandot. Ilincai started a little tense as Calaf, but the tenor delivered “Nessun Dorma” beautifully. As Liu, soprano Eri Nakamura was outstanding singing and acting. Bass Riccardo Zanellato played Timur, an ousted king and Calaf’s father, with compassion.

The chorus, with members of the New National Theatre Chorus, Fujiwara Opera Chorus Group and the Biwako Hall Vocal Ensemble, did a marvelous job.

The Barcelona Symphony Orchestra, where Ono presides as the music director, gave a spirited performance from the pit.

There were a few technical hitches with supertitles (or side titles, as English and Japanese translations of the original Italian libretto were shown on both sides of the stage) and elsewhere, but all were within the acceptable realm of opening night gaffes.

The new production is part of the Summer Festival Opera 2019-20 Japan — Tokyo — World, one of the cultural events ahead of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games next year, and is produced by the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, which is operated by the Tokyo metropolitan government, and the New National Theatre, Tokyo, where the performances will continue this week, followed by performances in Otsu and Sapporo. Tickets are sold out, but a limited number of seats with restricted views will be available at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, on the day of performance.

Upcoming performances of “Turandot”: Tonight and July 20-22 at New National Theatre, Tokyo in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo; July 27, 28 at Biwako Hall in Otsu; Aug. 3, 4 at Sapporo Cultural Arts Theater Hitaru. Visit opera-festival.com/en for more information.Speech

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