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Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, July 2011

Anyone who has ever visited Salzburg will at once feel at home during the opening titles, where great views from the town and its surroundings are shown. As soon as the opera begins we are immediately transported to the cruel reality of ancient Peking, where the decapitated head of one of Turandot’s suitors falls to the ground. Ancient Peking? No, we are viewing a high-technological industrial society with running wheels and the like. The associations go to Chaplin’s Modern times so we are in for yet another picture of our own society but with the story from a very distant past. History repeats itself? Ping, Pang and Pong are grotesque characters in science-fiction costumes and wearing clown-like masks. Generally masks play a central role and it’s like a puppet show with a visible puppet-master changing the position of the masks. People don’t show their real faces—life is a masked ball. The Pountney concept is based on the thought that ‘the fatal combination of rapid technological progress, which is gradually spinning out of control, and inhuman political systems poses a fundamental threat to all human values. The freedom and the existence of the individual appear to be constantly threatened by a soulless, robot-like administration, and the individual is absorbed or even eliminated by an amorphous, brutal mass’ (Quote from the booklet). The first impression was that here is a direction that works against Puccini’s music but gradually all the sprawling pieces of this gigantic jigsaw-puzzle started to fit together. In the end the production stood out as one of the most magnificent and deeply-probing realisations of Puccini’s ultimate and perhaps greatest masterpiece. In line with this it was also a natural choice to use Luciano Berio’s completion of the third act. Not that I like it very much. I saw a production at the Staatsoper in Berlin several years ago where the Berio was also used and, though Alfano’s ending, which has become the standard, has its detractors I still feel that he comes much closer to Puccini’s intentions, interesting though the Berio can be once in a while as an alternative. It adds nothing of importance—more than that it is far longer than Alfano’s or at least that’s the feeling I get.

The combination of the fiery Gergiev and the refined Wiener Philharmoniker works extremely well. There is a thrust and rhythmic intensity that catapults the action forward mercilessly. The chorus from Vienna State Opera are well attuned to this music and there is a hair-raising impact in the first act choruses.

The cast of solo singers is starry, down to the three ministers, who have rarely been so impressive. I have heard elderly-sounding interpreters of Emperor Altoum but few with such verbal acuity as the late Robert Tear. Paata Burchuladze’s mighty and sonorous voice has always impressed me and as so often in this opera when a good bass is available one feels that it is a pity he has so little to sing. Verdi would have given him at least one aria to show his capacity in full.

I saw and heard Cristina Gallardo-Domàs as Liù in Paris more than a decade ago and have ever since hoped that there would be a recording with her in the role. Now my wish has come true and I wasn’t disappointed. She has a quite voluminous voice but with the ability to scale it down. She sings Liù’s two arias with glowing tone and her stage manners are lovely. The last act aria, just before her suicide is the musical high-spot in this performance.

Johan Botha’s mighty tenor is unfortunately afflicted by an annoying beat, not exactly a wobble but enough to disfigure some of his singing. Nessun dorma is strong and not very subtle but in a way that rhymes well with the inhuman setting. Gabriele Schnaut is one of her generation’s great dramatic sopranos and her Turandot is a high-voltage princess. Also visually she is imposing. Like Botha she isn’t free from vocal blemishes. In her case many years of a diet consisting of Isolde, Brünnhilde, Elektra, Salome and the Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten has not passed unnoticed and the tone, though imposing, is rather shaky.

In spite of these imperfections this production is still worth seeing. Both visually and theatrically it is among the best. By and large the singing is up to the requirements. Keep either of Birgit Nilsson’s recordings—with Jussi Björling and Franco Corelli respectively—at hand for the ultimate vocal experience.

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