The Test of “Turandot”

The staging of Puccini’s famous work, with which the National Opera opened its renewed hall and Plamen Kartaloff inaugurated his second term as director, goes to Japan this autumn.

With his last opera “Turandot” Giacomo Puccini wanted to “shaken, to snatch all mankind”. Startling and groundbreaking was the premiere of the Sofia Opera, dedicated to 150 anniversary of the Italian master. A performance on world level, worthy to stand by the biggest opera stages in the jubilee year of Puccini. A premiere, born during a repair of the building, which demonstrated the ability of the Bulgarians to overcome the impossible working conditions, to withstand the test of one of the hardest titles in the opera repertoire, Puccini’s masterpiece “Turandot”.

This work is a real challenge not only for the soloists, but for the entire ensemble. We, Bulgarians, have one of the greatest Turandot – Ghena Dimitrova, who carried the heavy crown of the Chinese princess for more than 20 years, a record worthy of Guinness. We also have an outstanding ensemble. The opening of the renewed hall of the opera opened and renewed the face of our first theatre with the return of Plamen Kartaloff as director. 12 years ago he took his first managerial mandate to “Turandot”, now again he revived the theatre to new life with the same title.

Puccini’s swansong is a big challenge even for great theatres. In 1996 a star cast with Ghena Dimitrova conquered more than eight European stages, and opened for the Sofia Opera the way to Japan. This show won the confidence of the pretentious Japanese audience and together with La Scala our Opera House is preferred and sought-after now for the fourth tour in the land of the rising sun, which will take place in autumn this year.

In less than three months the new management was able to collect a star cast – the generation, which in recent years continues the tradition of Bulgarian vocal artists in the world. It managed to attract and Maestro Emil Tabakov. Plamen Kartaloff, acting as director and producer, put professionalism and energy to mobilize the entire ensemble, to kindle the spark of making contemporary theatre, which would correspond to our time. This premiere was an expression of the high spiritual standards of Bulgarians, of their talent, their potential that is revealed only when efforts are combined and rationalized by a clear strategy.
This production seeks the key to our time, unlike the previous one, with the nature of an exotic story. It relies on symbols and characters familiar from Asian philosophy. The stage is “overwhelmed” by the huge dragon that sweeps into space, creating three-dimensional feeling, reminiscent of the Chinese wall, which integrates all the action. In the body of the dragon, symbol of earthly forces, of power, is played cruel game of life and death of a female executioner, Turandot, who nevertheless finally falls in the grip of love.

Master of using stage space, Kartaloff recreates the high and low level, male and female, yin and yang. A brought to the fore platform is where the fight of life and death takes place between the cruel princess and the maddened with passion Prince Calàf. Elevated above it is the platform of imperial authority. Female and male come to life in graphics and colour in the background. Dramaturgy relies on dynamic change in the composition of light, the effect is like a film. All of this satisfies the requirement of Puccini of “the living theatre, the theatre of action”. The choir has a major role not only as a commentator but also as a motor of what is happening. The movement of the various groups, subject to the Tai chi technique and the quickly changing light setup and composition, build the drama in contrasts and impressively. This contemporary theatre testifies about the team thinking of the director, stage designer Miodrag Tabachki, artistic lighting Andrei Hadzhinyak, movement consultant Svetlin Ivelinov, the Tai chi of Elena Pampulova. The costumes from the previous staging of Yoanna Manoledaki are enriched with new by Elena Ivanova and Anna Kirilova. The new are a reference to the art of the Secession, the old conjure an exotic fairy tale. Chorus master Lubomira Alexandrova and Slavil Dimitrov coped well musically, but with the complex setting as well.

This directorial decision is a great test for the whole ensemble, not only for the chorus but also for the orchestra, which connects all this great stage design. Emil Tabakov built an impressive musical and stage drama, and did not for a moment miss the dynamics tempo and rhythm from beginning to end. Tabakov highlighted the contrasts in the rich orchestral score, brought new life to the formerly known interpretation of this shattering music of Puccini. The dynamic changes, the nuances – especially in the ensemble and choral scenes – created a new face of the work. An excellent sound balance between stage and orchestra was achieved, a craftsmanship, worthy of the best theatres. Here is the place to mention that the renewed room enjoys excellent acoustics, unlike before. I recall the words of the famous German conductor Hermann Abendroth at the opening of the Sofia Opera 50 years ago. He compares the acoustics of the theatre with that of La Scala. The artistry of our musicians, led by Maestro Tabakov, defended this view of the great conductor.

The elite soloists cast recalled that today we have our great singers who conquer the world stages, but unfortunately in our country are somewhat forgotten. Mariana Tsvetkova created a more feminine image of the cruel princess. Ever since her first appearance she plays the game of life and death – throwing the ball of her challenge to Calàf. Her behaviour in the test of Calàf with the three mysteries does not suggest so much cruelty, but rather vulnerability. This Turandot is different. She relies more on that dread and unknown passion that Calàf awakens in the princess still at their first meeting. Afraid of him, her eyes see the shining of the hero in him, she hates him and desires him, wants to win, but also to be defeated. Gifted with a powerful and beautiful voice, Mariana Tsvetkova subjects also vocally the image to that contemporary feeling, perhaps because she wants to express something of herself. The biggest challenge for Mariana Tsvetkova is to be in this role on the stage, on which the real master is the great Ghena Dimitrova; everyone would compare her, but she believes in her own feeling, because it reveals something of herself. This different stroke of art has been provoked by the director’s decision too.

Kostadin Andreev filled his Calàf with nerve and drama, with confidence in victory. He suggested that there is nothing more powerful than the power of love. He invested various shades in the vocal image of Calàf in his relation to Liù and his father, to Turandot. The exceptional vocal beauty and impression of Tsvetelina Vassileva in the role of Liù puts her into the world elite. In fact from her first appearance as Liù alongside Ghena Dimitrova, the Bulgarian soprano conquered the world stages. This Liù I am sure would appeal to Puccini. Convincing vocally and as an image was Timur by Dimitar Stanchev. Ping, Pang, Pong – Alexander Krunev, Plamen Papazikov, Momchil Karaivanov enacted a real theatre – in terms both of stage and vocal. This large-scale production is the result of the efforts of assistant directors Yulia Krasteva and second assistant directors Vera Beleva and Rositsa Dobreva.

The test of “Turandot”, Puccini’s incomplete creation about love, life and death, revived the high standards of Bulgarian opera art. This premiere was an exciting celebration for the audiences, who have returned to the opera temple; a memorable feast, inspiring self-confidence in one’s power and spiritual potential.
Magdalena Manolova

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