Librettists: Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni
Director: Vasily Barkhatov
Conductor: Dan Ettinger
Princess Turandot: Sondra Radvanovsky
Calaf: Yusif Eyvazov
Liu: Rosa Feola
Timur: Alexander Tsymbalyuk
Emperor Altoum: Nicola Martinucci
Ping: Roberto de Candia
Pang: Gregory Bonfatti
Pong: Francesco Pittari
Here she was, at last! After having stood us up last spring in Macbeth, American and Canadian soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, one of the world’s top lyrical singers of our times, was in front of my friend Vittorio and me, and the rest of the captive audience, on the stage of Naples’ Teatro di San Carlo last Sunday. Granted, I had been much keener to watch her as deliciously machiavellian Lady Macbeth than as cold-hearted princess Turandot, but beggars cannot be choosers, and I felt privileged enough to be getting what we were getting.
I was all the more hoping that she would show up and make the notoriously unbending princess come compellingly alive like only she could because those tickets were a belated birthday present to my wonderful Neapolitan host Vittorio (Hey, it is not my fault if the San Carlo did not have anything on their schedule on October 24), and while the opera itself is no masterpiece, her mere presence automatically upgraded this run of performances to “special occasion” status.
The road to the San Carlo, however, proved to be trickier than usual this time because I had unwittingly planned my trip on a day of national strike in public transportation. To add insult to injury, I also ended up in a, let’s say, highly spirited discussion with my grumpy but admittedly efficient Neapolitan cab driver about my lack of respect for law and order (in Naples!!!) because I had let the family of four plus heaps of luggage behind me at Napoli Centrale’s taxi stand go ahead and take the spacious van that was supposed to be my ride, therefore depriving him and his regular-sized car of a few euros in fare. “The customer is always right” has apparently not made it to the Parthenopean City yet.
Things substantially improved on Sunday, however, a splendid winter day with the perfect balance of invigorating cold and radiant sunshine. Late morning, we got to hear a couple of Neapolitan songs and The Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night”, of all things, performed by the highly competent amateur winds and percussion band to which Vittorio’s nephew Francesco belongs, although he was not there that time. And then, after a yummy lunch at our favorite pizzeria, a smooth subway ride and a leisurely spin around Piazza del Plebiscito, we excitingly took our premium orchestra seats in the San Carlo for the main event of the day.
Until last Sunday, I had seen Turandot twice, and neither experience had been totally satisfying for various reasons, including uneven singing talents. Plus, the plot is kind of silly, even by opera standards, although we must take into account that Puccini died before completing the last act, and therefore can always blame Franco Albano for the cheesy “His name is love” happy ending. In any case, I figured that I did not have a lot to lose giving it a try a third time, and that it may just be the charm.
Having Sondra Radvanovsky, a superlative singer well-known for her expertise in 19th-century Italian opera, starring as Turandot was an iron-clad guarantee of high quality to begin with, and needless to say, the woman delivered in spades, from unshakable imperviousness to progressive softening to full emotional awareness. Blessed with prodigious acting and singing skills, as well as a naturally charismatic presence, Radvanovsky handled her challenging part with utter conviction and treated us to impeccably controlled musical feats. Her character was certainly not the most spontaneously likable of the repertoire, but she managed to make her a complex woman one could almost care about, which represents quite a tour de force.
A truly engaging performance was also delivered by Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazov as Calaf, the besotted former prince determined to break the resilience of the strong-willed princess who wants nothing to do with him, or anybody else for that matter. His singing was ardent, generous and muscular, and he left no doubt about the intensity of his feelings. Last, but not least, I will forever be grateful to him for finally allowing me to hear a glorious interpretation of the score’s big hit “Nessun dorma.” In this case, the third time was the charm indeed.
Not to be outdone at the applause meter, local soprano Rosa Feola, a certified bel canto expert with a remarkably clear and attractive voice, sensitively portrayed the slave girl Liu whose unrequited and selfless love for Calaf, who once smiled at her, will be her doom. Achingly vulnerable at first, but eventually displaying an impressive resolve even in the direst of circumstances, she just knew how to exquisitely unfold her delicate lines and soft pianissimos, and broke everybody’s heart in the process. On Sunday, Liu loved, Liu lost, but Feola won.
In smaller but still significant roles, we had Ukrainian bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk, who brought quiet dignity to the fallen King Timur, and 82-year-old Italian tenor Nicola Martinucci, whose couple of cameos as Emperor Altoum were all but impossible to miss due to his unforgivingly sparkly outfit and poignant sense of weariness, which is not surprising when you’re stuck in a crystal coffin and just let out to sing a couple of songs. And the trio of court ministers Ping (Roverto de Candia), Pang (Gregory Bonfatti) and Pong (Francesco Pittari) provided welcome touches of light-heartedness with their comic antics à la commedia del’arte.
One of the Teatro di San Carlo’s most valuable assets, its chorus proved to be as well-prepared and capable as ever, whether their voices were singing in powerful unison or in meticulously organized layers. They shared choral duties with the Coro di Voci Bianche, the children’s chorus of the San Carlo, whose endearing voices added a welcome breath of freshness and exoticism to the proceedings.
Puccini’s score for Turandot may not be his proudest achievement — again, the poor guy did not get a chance to fine-tune it either — but it provides many opportunities for musical thrills, which the orchestra consistently grabbed and efficiently carried out. Every time I see the San Carlo’s musical director Dan Ettinger conduct, I am reminded a little bit more of Yannick Nézet-Seguin, and not just because of his short bleached blond hair, but also because he has always proved to be a deeply informed and genuinely enthusiast leader. And even if there were a couple of slight balance issues on Sunday, the music from the pit occasionally covering the singers’ voices during highly dramatic peaks, the orchestra’s performance was terrific.
Then there was the modern production by emerging Russian director Vasily Barkhatov, who was making his Italian debut with this Turandot. And I must say that, while I am always open to new take on the classics, I also expect the final result to present a unified vision that makes some sort of sense. In that regard, the production we watched on Sunday evening looked like an overflowing hodgepodge of half-baked ideas, obscure references, and elusive concepts, and I found my frequent attempts to navigate this holy mess to be an exhausting, frustrating, and ultimately unrewarding.
First of all, having black and white movie sequences adding a present-time context, and then presenting the actual opera as delirium experienced by Calaf and later Turandot, was probably doomed from the start, not to mention that Radvanovsky was atrociously dubbed in Italian. During the actual opera performance, the combination of the present, which usually appeared as the operating theater in which the Calaf or Turandot was being treated repeatedly descending from the ceiling, and the phantasmagorical visions, which were pretty much the rest of the not-so-organized chaos happening on the stage, was often overwhelming.
I am not a big fan of extra visual media in stage productions in the first place, but I’ll admit that the black and white sequences had an appealing film noir atmosphere to them, and the inclusion of Naples’ Basilica di San Lorenzo Maggiore in them was a nice touch. On the other hand, the large projections of Calaf’s and Turnadot’s faces getting progressively younger through the magic of modern technology seemed to come out of nowhere and accomplished exactly nothing. And the recurring close-ups of Liu cutting her veins were essentially gratuitous (Yes, I get it that Liu had mental issues and that “blood” is the answer to the second riddle, but beating us over the head with the gory details quickly got on my nerves).
On the bright side, there was the occasional proof of sure-footed taste, such eye-popping costumes and smart lighting, as well as the use the timeless silhouette of the Abbey of San Galgano in Tuscany as part of the decor. Alas, red and pink neon signs displaying the answers to the three riddles, and the car involved in the accident, would at different points unceremoniously drop in front of it and effectively kill the mood. Fact is, the most memorable tableaux were the simplest ones, like the rowing boats containing the bodies of Liu and Timur gently sailing upwards over the dark background, and the most memorable moments were the quietest ones, such as Liu movingly joining Calaf’s and Turandot’s hands.
I typically do not pay much attention to the systematic panning of modern productions, always strive to keep an open mind, and appreciate the boldness it takes to make unconventional and therefore potentially controversial choices, but this probably sincere yet definitively overblown effort did not bear its fruit as far as I am concerned. That said, I also think that if this young, apparently talented, and unquestionably ambitious enfant terrible learns to channel his clearly existing creative juices with rigor and purpose, things may just work out for him. And for us.