For more than forty years, this opera has not come down (with small time gaps between a revival, or a new staging!) from the poster of the opera theatre. By 1974, according to the regulation for a 50-year period (Puccini died in 1924) copyright was still paid for any of its performance. At that time, the tale of the cruel Princess Turandot did not make me excited, that is, until I happened to see in Moscow a remarkable production of Evgeni Vahtangov of the eponymous play by Carlo Gozzi (in the Vahtangov Theatre with the exceptional Anastasia Vertinskaya in the title role), and Turandot did fascinate me. Thus, in fact from the dramatic theatre, I started to discover the opera by Puccini. And gradually I came by new and new details, understood the wisdom and depth of the plot, and of Puccini’s last work.
It is an undeniable fact that Turandot is an unusual and innovative work of art. However, reading the score, we find also a deep connection with the great Italian tradition of Rossini and Verdi. A synthesis of non-traditional and traditional characterises the role of the princess – a great soprano role, amazingly difficult and amazingly small in duration! Original are the dramatic structure and the import of characters in masks Ping, Pang and Pong (naturally – from the old Italian theatre), and the episodes functioning as interludes and distancing the viewer from the main action. And the most important achievement in the work is the great composer’s balance between chamber scale and monumentality. Because the participation of the chorus here is in the style of Mussorgsky – the human crowd, the people of Beijing, sympathises, suffers, rejoices, comments – it is always involved in what is happening.
The last premiere of Turandot coincided with the opening of the fully renovated building and hall of the Sofia Opera. Many years ago we lived with the expectation that a new opera will be built. The great conductor, then dean of the theatre, Asen Naidenov was clear that this will not happen – not just while he was alive (he died in the early 90’s of the last century), but assured us that we would not live to see it too. Well, at least on March 21, 2008 we entered the old but entirely renovated hall. I think its renewed appearance kind of charged the audience with a festive mood and respect. With the elegant wine red tone of the curtain and the upholstery, with the lustre of gold in some of the wall decorations, with the wider seats and rows, with the blue sky in a medallion on the ceiling… And with the breath of purity and freshness. I had a feeling that something new was starting in this very worthy and prestigious Bulgarian opera theatre on whose stage have sung and directed, and in the orchestra pit have played and conducted some of the most renowned personalities in Bulgarian musical life.
The plastic, visual form of the show is built vertically, with the space ruled by the mythological dragon – a symbol of China. The action takes place both vertically and horizontally. Below is the reality – life in Beijing, the territory of the people, of the aliens – as Liù and Timur. The higher levels are the ministers, Turandot, the princes, and on top of this imaginary pyramid is the Emperor, the Son of Heaven. The main venue for meetings and dramatic events is the circle, below, in the form of the twisting tail of the dragon. Off the chains with lead colour – the dragon’s mouth, crawls or hides the people of Beijing, a witness and commentator on what is happening, in this maw sink Liù and Timur. The décor corresponds with the idea of Turandot herself, with her own imaginary picture of herself as majestically outworldly monster, an emanation of perfect innocence and purity of a heavenly creature, drugged by the obsession to revenge on male foreigners because of its distant predecessor Princess Lo-u-Ling.
For the second time Plamen Kartaloff directs “Turandot” on the Sofia stage and I can definitely say that his current production is more philosophical, more pounding. The mise-en-scènes are spare, but expressive, at times even aggressive in the emotional aspect. Experience and penetration in the internal levels of the messages of the story and its interpretations by Gozzi, Adams and Simoni have determined the freedom and flexibility in the building of a dynamic performance, the concentration of feelings and the impact climaxes. The director outlines the dramatic profile of Puccini’s opera with bright accents and detail of the images, but also with targeted use of the body plastics of each performer. He is helped in this respect by consultants Svetlin Ivelinov, choreographer, and Elena Pampulova – Tai chi coach. The mass scenes are developed effectively. Together with guest artist Miodrag Tabachki, the director relies on colours, bearing in themselves ancient symbolism. The costumes, whose authors are Yoana Manoledaki, Elena Ivanova and Anna Kirilova, are very effective.
After long years of absence, the podium of the opera was taken by conductor Emil Tabakov. For me this is a sign of significant change in the life of the Sofia Opera. The period of impersonal and without any spark of inspiration musical direction of former director and conductor Borislav Ivanov did not enter anything of value, dignity in its biography. The abilities and talent of Tabakov, in tandem with the creator of the rank of Kartaloff, give new look to the artistic expressions of the team. The orchestra, respectful of the knowledge and skill of Emil Tabakov, sounded nuanced, full, multicoloured, revealing the beauty of the magnificent Puccini’s music. The energy, sensitivity and temperament of the conductor flowed to the orchestra and the stage, and hence – to the audience in the hall. The complex score of the opera was covered in all its diversity in melody, intonation, modality, harmonics and pace and was recreated with genuine passion and inspiration. The result of the unison among the staging team was the strong suggestion and the brilliantly recreated form of the work. Indeed, at times, we felt some overdosing of emotion manifested in the strength and too exposed sound volume both in the orchestra, and soloists, but it is customary for a premiere. A premiere, which I felt and perceived with the rapture at the sight of a beautiful blossomed tree in spring. The presence of Tabakov was a chance for the singers too, who sang and played confidently, with commitment and overt empathy for the realization of the great music.
The third power in the opera are the soloists. A carefully selected team of singers is a guarantee of success. As happened with the premiere cast. Mariana Tsvetkova – Turandot (I hear her for the first time) makes a strong impression with the silver, metallic colouring of her breakthrough, powerful trumpet voice. A very stable soprano, a singer of radiance and temperament. Perhaps with time and after the premiere excitement is allayed she will achieve (she needs and can achieve!) more nuances – in the tale, providing her motive for cruelty, in the third act, where she failed to outline convincingly enough the psychological effect of the death of Liù, and also of the first kiss of Calàf. Brilliant was Tsvetelina Vasileva, whose Liù is shattering – both as stage presence and singing. The high class of the singer, the filigree craftsmanship of each phrase, the stage behaviour, multiplied by the beauty of the voice, had their say. For me she was the star of the show. Kostadin Andreev, who has also sung many times the difficult part of Prince Calàf, was in excellent voice form – sensitive, attractive, giving it all without saving his physical and vocal energy. A singer who is remembered because he always lives through his part and plays it in full. All this is reflected in the audience, whose favourite he has been for years.
Timur was vividly presented by Dimitar Stanchev, one of the most voluminous and beautiful basses in contemporary Bulgarian Opera Theatre, also an experienced warrior in many operas battles and tests. The three ministers – Ping, Pang and Pong (Alexander Krunev, Plamen Papazikov and Momchil Karaivanov) were very colourful, but in their difficult ensembles they have some more to achieve yet. In the small roles of Altoum, the Emperor, and the Mandarin sang Miroslav Andreev and Stoil Georgiev. The choir of the opera performed its hard part with humour and passion, and brought me back to the glorious times when – not so long ago, it riveted the audience’s attention. Obviously a good job of chorus masters Lyubomira Alexandrova and Slavil Dimitrov. Of course this is only the beginning of its revival – there is yet what to be tackled in terms of sound, ensemble, dynamics, tempo and rhythm.
With its excellent qualities, with its achievements, which of course are only the beginning, and knowing the will of the new director and manager of the National Opera Plamen Kartaloff, I believe that “Turandot” will grow more in artistic and interpretational terms. And for a long time it will not only keep the memory of the opening of the renewed hall but will become a landmark production of our revived opera theatre.
Kultura Weekly – Issue 13 (2496), 05 April 2008