ZURICH — There’s nothing like the cancellation of a star tenor, especially in an opera like Puccini’s Turandot, to raise an eyebrow or two. In June, Zurich Opera unveiled Sebastian Baumgarten’s highly imaginative approach to this Puccini favorite with the eagerly anticipated stage debuts of Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role and Piotr Beczała as Calaf. The word on the street was that the tenor had some vocal difficulty in the first two performances, mainly in the role’s punishing high-flying phrases.
The day before the third performance on June 27, it was announced that Beczała had been suffering from a viral infection and upon the advice of his doctors was withdrawing from the rest of the run. Tenors who can do justice to the role of Calaf are rare birds, but Zurich Opera was fortunate in filling the gap with Martin Muehle for the first two performances. As fate would have it, he was in Madrid preparing to sing Calaf in Robert Wilson’s production at the Teatro Real.
There is a lot to unpack in Baumgarten’s concept for Turandot, but the starting point is conductor Marc Albrecht’s decision to end the opera after Liù’s death in Act III, where Arturo Toscanini set down his baton at the opera’s 1926 premiere at La Scala. Most performances of Turandot conclude with two scenes completed by Franco Alfano from Puccini’s sketches. Albrecht, however, finds the ending unconvincing, especially musically. Where others experience the rapture of a happy ending to a love story, he only hears music composed by Alfano, not Puccini.
Baumgarten provides a frame of reference for this departure from tradition by projecting text that details Puccini’s treatment for cancer and the fact that he only partially competed the third act before his death in 1924. If only the rest of Baumgarten’s concept was so easy to grasp.
Context is important to Baumgartner, and to provide more, a grainy black-and-white photograph of soldiers fighting in a trench during World War I was ever present. The image could be related to Puccini’s ambivalent attitude to the war. An argument with Toscanini, in which Puccini remarked that Italy could benefit from German organization, resulted in a 10-year rupture in Puccini’s friendship with the conductor.
It might also be a reference to the capacity of human beings to act irrationally, especially in light of Baumgarten opting to set Turandot in a bee colony where there is an established hierarchy and things run like clockwork. The foreign princes, seeking to win Turandot as a wife, are other insects, unwelcome invaders with the capacity to destroy the hive.
Odd as it may seem at first, the social network of a bee colony fits rather neatly into the social stratification of Imperial China. As the queen, Radvanovsky wore robes of yellow and black with a headpiece from which countless antennae sprouted. She posed the three riddles to Calaf in nothing more than a top and slacks.
Worker bees in white overalls were busy making markings on the stage and the large white paper backdrop that obscured the photo of the World War I trenches. They also checked off the number of princes who had sought to wed Turandot and failed in their quest. They tore down the backdrop after Calaf successfully answered the three riddles Turandot posed to him.
The chorus, attired in yellow and black, straddled the gap between worker bees and drones. It was one of Baumgarten’s wittiest touches to have Ping, Pang, and Pong, the three bureaucrats who long for life’s pleasures instead of the gruesome work of dealing with the unsuccessful suitors, dressed as drones with large compound eyes at the top of their oversized heads.
The queen bee sits atop the social hierarchy and is responsible for the colony’s strength and survival. Radvanovsky is a singer who places great importance on the physicality of a character. Turandot’s fears and paranoia had stunted her emotionally and physically, which manifested in Radvanovsky’s furtive and jerky movements. Clearly, this was a queen bee on edge.
Radvanovsky likewise projected Turandot’s tortured psyche in her voice. In its lower ranges, her voice could be guttural and harsh, especially when cornered by her father, the Emperor Altoum. The role, however, held no terrors for Radvanovsky in the intimate confines of the Zurich Opera House.
The soprano sang “In questia reggia” with the dramatic intensity that was to be expected. Radvanovsky’s sound was molten, glowing, and free as she alternatively gave voice to her fears and defiance in Puccini’s soaring vocal lines. More of a surprise, however, was how beautifully she sang the few tender moments afforded her in the role.
Muehle had scant time to rehearse with either the stage director or conductor, but he fit seamlessly into the production. In terms of characterization, he benefited, as did Timur and Liù, by being an insect totally distinct from the bees. The blue costumes that they wore turned them into action heroes, which the Unknown Prince is to a large extent.
The test, of course, was “Nessun dorma,” the reason most people go to this opera, according to Albrecht, and Muehle passed it with flying colors. The voice blazed as he sang with triumphant certainty that Turandot’s heart will melt and return his ardent love. Muehle was rewarded with the loudest ovation of the night after he sang the final cry of victory.
This version of Turandot, however, tilts both the emotional and musical balances in favor of Liù, the servant girl upon whom Calaf once bestowed a smile, thus gaining her unswerving love and devotion. Puccini wrote two exceptionally beautiful and moving arias for Liù, “Signor ascolta” and “Tu che di gel sei cinta,” which Rosa Feola sang with luminous tone and an exceptional emotional connection. Physically, she too took on the aura of an action figure rather than a meek serving girl tending to the blind Timur, portrayed by a vigorous and robust sounding Nicola Ulivieri.
The frustration of the drones of the bee colony over Turandot’s dread of marriage and the needless slaughter of princes was obvious. Martin Zysset’s Altoum was a wonderful creation with his raspy voice and droll manner. He practically gave the answer to the third riddle away to the Unknown Prince by pointing his cane at his obstinate daughter.
Ping, Pang, and Pong were as exasperated by Turandot as they were over Calaf’s refusal to abandon his quest. Xiaomeng Zhang, Iain Milne, and Nathan Haller doffed their headpieces and lent a seriousness to the plights of the unfortunate princes that is usually absent in productions that focus on the character’s commedia dell’arte antecedents. Zhang’s warm, resonant baritone was particularly impressive in his subtle portrayal of Ping.
In the program, Albrecht wrote that a conductor must compensate for the monumental moments of the opera with the relatively fewer lyrical ones of which Puccini was particularly fond. This he accomplished with the sensitivity with which he paced Liù’s scenes. Radvanovsky’s ability to express Turandot’s tender emotions so softly was also due in great part to Albrecht’s deft conducting.
Albrecht, however, could unleash the full power of the orchestra and chorus to ferocious, almost oppressive levels of sound and emotion. The opening scenes, where the crowd gathers at the palace gate clamoring for blood, were almost overwhelming. That fever pitch could only be sustained for so long, but at any dynamic level the emotionally intensity of this performance never flagged.
This Turandot ended in a pensive, equivocal mood, with the greatest riddle left unanswered: Would Turandot discover love? Radvanovsky and Muehle stood staring at each other from opposite ends of the stage, while the orchestra played Puccini’s lovely, bittersweet melodies. Perhaps it was not the ending that we have grown accustomed to, but it was all the more effective for that.