Bravo Cura

Celebrating José Cura--Singer, Conductor, Director

 

 

 

Turandot // Liege

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Turandot

LIÈGE

Opéra Royal de Liège

9/23/16

Opera News

THE OPÉRA ROYAL DE LIÈGE opened its season with Puccini’s Turandot without the usual Alfano finale, but ending instead with the death of Liù. Toscanini had chosen this option for the work’s premiere, for, despite a few sketches by the composer, his death robbed us of knowing precisely how he would have dealt with the redemptive love of Calaf and Turandot. It is perhaps overly romantic to suggest that Puccini’s creativity was thwarted by the challenge of a happy ending. Renaissance man José Cura, was at once star tenor, director and designer of the show, with Paolo Arrivabeni conducting the Liège chorus and orchestra. When the audience entered the auditorium, children were busy making a Lego model of a temple and putting the finishing touches to paintings of the costumes. The Mandarin, baritone Roger Joakim, entered as an exasperated contemporary schoolteacher, cajoling his pupils into the telling of the ancient legend before donning his costume. The curtain then rose on a fairy tale image of the temple, inspired by the children’s imagination. It was a valid idea, but unfortunately the stylized temple looked rather too much like a 1950s take on chinoiserie than a cutting-edge concept.  

Cura’s best ideas came in his treatment of Ping, Pang and Pong—a trio of characters who often irritate rather than charm. He treated them as three principal characters of the commedia dell’arte, Pantalone, Arlecchino and Dr Balanzone, before dressing up in their official Chinese costumes for the riddles. This brought a darker brooding quality to the trio, who were even touching as they spoke of their past lives, led by the excellent baritone Patrick Delcour as Ping. 

Cura tried to cram too many tempting ideas into the final minutes of this shortened version. There is no music to accompany a last minute appearance of the dead composer, or Liù’s seemingly angelic pardon, but ending the opera with the poor girl’s death does put the opera in line with the heroines of La Bohème and Madama Butterfly. Liège was fortunate to have a scene stealing Liù in diminutive young American soprano Heather Engebretson. After a hesitant Act I aria, she reappeared with tragic poise and sweetly floated phrases for her climactic death scene, garnering the most applause from the first night audience on September 23, aided by some impassioned last-act singing from bass Luca Dall’Amico as Timur. This sentimental ending robs from Turandot her moment of transformation, somewhat sidelining the character—one suspects that neither the formidable Turandots of ages past, such as Eva Turner and Birgit Nilsson, would have gone with the plan. 

Tiziana Caruso’s sensual dramatic soprano made her seem a woman confused by her own sexuality, rather than an icy princess; her Turandot was intrigued by the arrival of the all-conquering Calaf, and shocked by the shattering reality of Liù’s death. “In questa reggia” and the climax of the riddle scene were spoiled by top Bs and Cs in which tension produced an unfortunate beat in her voice. Tenor Cura was in his very best form, however, with a secure heroic presence, and a roof raising “Nessun dorma”. 

Arrivabeni conducted a well paced performance but one lacking in orchestral detail; the chorus of children was excellent, their adult colleagues sounded in need of more voices. The production was dedicated to Cura’s friend and colleague, the recently deceased soprano Daniela Dessi, “Dany” to her friends. This was an evening of traditional vocal values, worthy of the artist who had made a number of appearances for this company.   —Stephen J. Mudge

 

Note:  This is a machine-based translation.  We offer it only a a general guide but it should not be considered definitive.

 

 

Forum Opéra

 

Dominique Joucken

23 September 2016

More than merely slavish illustration, José Cura succeeds in recovering the “Turandot tone” so unique to Puccini’s career and so difficult to define: that of an epic choral work in which China unfolds in all its magical sensuality but also its cruelty.  At the same time, the kitsch—a pitfall so common when it comes to Asia—is avoided by thorough work on lighting and costumes.  The ingenious way in which the children’s choir is integrated into the action deserves to be highlighted.

José Cura has (almost) lost nothing from his glorious period on discs in the late 1990s, where he played the chained Samson and Pagliacci without flinching.  The voice is always ample, fastened on physical and technical bases at all times.  He must be seen on stage, his legs slightly spread, his neck tucked between his shoulders, beginning to roar like a wildcat.  His timbre has a baritone coloring, along the lines of a Ramon Vinay, at the same time having the ability to go for the high notes without bleaching his voice.  

In conclusion, this Turandot was a captivating show, one which opened with great fanfare the opera season at Liège.  The bar has been placed very high for the sequel.

 

Note:  This is a machine-based translation.  We offer it only a a general guide but it should not be considered definitive.

 

Anaclase

 27 septembre 2016

Faithful servant of Puccini, José Cura was here in more than one role.  Indeed, although the Argentinean is known for his operas, perhaps some are unaware that he composes, conducts, and for the last ten years has been staging operas.  He does so with seriousness and intelligence.

In reference to the original fable, Cura convened a group of children, who through a series of fun activities (painting, Legos, and so on) on the front edge of the stage announced the book ("Dal deserto al mar").  Rather than spreading outward, the Imperial City rose toward the rafters to allow the choir to be placed in the side galleries and ‘buried’ dungeons in the stage floor with little more than the torsos of the prisoners shown—creating an ingenious sounding board as much as a symbolic jail.  While the students dress their teacher as the Mandarin, three accomplices wearing the masks usually associated with Commedia dell'arte arrived to further connect reality and fantasy as the Ministers [Ping/Pang/Pong].  They offered the comic touch (phallic sword, Spiderman t-shirt)…

Dressed without exotic kitsch, strong singers surrounded José Cura (Calaf), a tenor of flawless strength but with heartbreaking tenderness when he whispered "Dimmi il mio nome".  The title role was taken by Tiziana Caruso, whose dramatic soprano was soft and creamy.  North American Heather Engebretson (Liù) offered promising crystalline energy.  Luca Dall’Amico (Timur) demonstrated valor, agility and great breath control.  

The sublime production was dedicated to Cura’s former singing partner, the divine Daniela Dessi.

 

 

BravoCura Editorial:  In which we attempt a defense of  our beloved Turandot

In the article below, José Cura explains why he liked the truncated ending of his Liège production of Turandot, why he finds the character of Calaf irredeemable, and why the traditional ending reduces the opera to a Freudian wet dream. While supporting artistic visions and admiring the creative efforts in Liege, BravoCura must defend the integrity of Turandot, its hero, and its plotline.

Cura elects to view Turandot as a fable rather than a fairy tale; he therefore requires it to offer a moral.  Unable to find one that satisfied his directorial vision with the traditional (Alfano) ending, he resolved his problem by simply eliminating that ending.  But more than merely allowing for messaging, the decision has significant consequences: it  denied Puccini's own vision (clearly outlined in his notes); it ignored the composer's death-bed plea--universally honored by directors and conductors—to present the opera only as a completed work; it turned a secondary character (Liù) into a principle, shoving Turandot firmly into the background where she definitely does not belong; and it denied the audience the necessary catharsis.  We hope someday Cura embraces the problem of Turandot and works to resolve it within the framework Puccini intended—or use his full arsenal of talents and skills to rework it for a more satisfactory conclusion.

It seems to us (and probably only us) that José Cura does not enjoy playing quiet heroes and so his active mind speculates, usually with excellent results but sometime with not so good ones. Cura's insistence that Calaf is a selfish brute who loves no one more than himself and who is callous, even vicious, in pursuing his ultimate goal is one of those rare situations. The problem is that there isn't a lot of evidence to back up Cura's position.  All the background stories Puccini could possibly have used as his sources describe a Prince who was noble and honest and honorable, a man worthy enough to rescue Turandot from the blackness in which she is encased; such a principled hero is also in line with other Puccini's mature works.  So to find true evil in Calaf, the character has to be reinterpreted: Calaf warns Timur and Liù in the opening act to be wary because danger surrounds them and then sends them away from harm at the end of Act II--but Cura insists Calaf "risks the life of his father"; he willingly accept the slave girl who save his father as an equal, explaining himself to her and worrying about her and trying to protect her--but Cura insists the prince is just "a spoiled ruler who is mocking his slave;"  he courageously protests the injustice against the Prince of Persia, even though he risks his life doing so, wins the Princess through bravery and intellect and then willingly forgoes his prize out of compassion for Turandot--but for Cura, this somehow makes Calaf a villain.  He even invents scenes where Calaf speaks of revenge, implying the Prince had plotted coming to Peking specifically to strike back at the Emperor; that doesn't seem inherent in the text. The most damning moments for Calaf come, of course, in Liu's death scene, in which the prince is bound and prevented from acting by imperial guards; for Cura this proves Calaf is irredeemable bad. But it was Puccini who insisted Liu die and it is clear that he never expected his hero to be held responsible for her death;  he viewed it as a necessary plot device to get Turandot and Calaf together. How the great maestro would have done that is only hinted at in his notes but one could argue that the composer is guilty of treating the little slave girl worse that Calaf ever does because he found her to be completely disposable and of little consequence--that weight is on Puccini's head, not Calaf's. Finally, the character Cura portrayed on stage in Liège was one of courage, compassion, devotion and selflessness (except for the anomalous Nessun dorma)--and it was absolutely magical.  Perhaps living the music means the true nature of Puccini’s hero cannot be denied.

Cura states that the ending creates more problems than it solves and invokes Freud as one of the reasons.  We think Freud needs to be removed from all discussion of Puccini from here on out, because it seems so easy to invoke his shadow to darkens every questionable aspect of Puccini's life and his operas. The idea that the Alfano ending requires a huge carnal intervention a la Freud is certainly unfounded and not the only way to read the ending.  Obviously, the transition between Liu's death and Turandot's capitulation is roughly handled; just as obviously Puccini was heading toward a happy, bloodless ending that celebrated Turandot finding true love with Calaf.  It is up to the director to smooth the rough edges and give us Puccini’s Turandot.  With a director of Cura's caliber, that should be feasible.  Wee look forward to seeing how he manages it--without Freud being invited to the theater.

 

 

Note:  This is a machine-based translation.

José Cura uses language with precision and purpose;  the computer does not.  

We offer it only a a general guide to the conversation and the ideas exchanged but the following should not be considered definitive.

 

José Cura, in the oven and the mill

La Libre

Nicolas Blanmont

September 23, 2016

 

Puccini to open the ORW season? Nothing new, obviously. But what will grab attention is the presence of José Cura on the bill: the great Argentine tenor will indeed sing the role of Calaf after having designed the staging of the evening. A one-man band? He had great success with his diptych "Pagliacci" / "Cavalleria rusticana" so there is much to hope for in his "Turandot". And not only because it is Puccini’s last opera, unfinished at the death of the composer in 1924, but because will be given without any of the endings composed by various composers.

You offer Turandot without the Alfano—or any other--ending. Why?

It is not “without an ending” because we will finish the show with the "end of the end," putting together a symbolic end of the fable - without the rhetoric of the last duet - with the dramatic end of Puccini’s life. It wasn't my choice alone; it was also requested by the Executive Board.  It suits me well, however: not having the final duet, with its almost Freudian sexual connotations, makes it possible to return to a child’s tale with a moral: finishing with the death of Liu emphasizes the value in sacrificing for love, in contrast to the coldness of Turandot and the selfishness of Calaf.

Is Calaf simply in love with Turandot or is he motivated by a desire for conquest, even a political win?

Calaf has no feeling of love for Turandot.  He never speaks of love, but of carnal possess and revenge:  "You took my Kingdom, you imprisoned my father and me, you killed my people, so here I am, ready to strike back." Her great beauty only feeds his predatory instincts. And the fact that he makes no effort to stop the sacrifice of Liù or that he risks the life of his father to get what he wants does not speak favorable of the Prince. When the Alfano ending is offered, things get even harder:  at the end of the opera everyone celebrates the conqueror while the corpse of Liù is still warm….

And Turandot? Does she fear lover or is she afraid of any relationship?

The Princess fears carnal love and therefore trembles in the face of masculine sensuality.  She uses the rape suffered by one of her ancestors as a reason to hate men… Ironically, she who does not hesitate to kill her suitors demands the sacrifice of a “different femininity” Liù, to accept that part of herself which she has denied.

How do you see the relationship between Calaf and Liu?

Liù offers a huge lesson in love, not only for Calaf but also for his father. In his speech to the first Act, Timur acknowledges with wonder and gratitude that his life was not saved by someone from his family or political entourage, but by a slave. A young girl, perhaps violated by soldiers, ill-treated and poorly nourished as a prisoner, lends her aid without resentment. And later, she gives her life to save his son, a selfish and arrogant guy, just because one day she thought she saw the shadow of a smile on the face of this Prince. Such is the nobility of this small girl:  she remains devoted to Calaf until her death without ever being able to determine if that famous smile was a true gesture of affection or, perhaps, the grimace of a spoiled ruler who is mocking his slave...

When, as here, you combine staging and singing, do you live the evening thinking only of your role or do you look critically at the details of the staging and performance of the other characters?

A very good question for which I have no complete answer.  Although I try to detach myself and be in my character while leaving the director at the door, I confess that I am always vigilant.  But it is also true that if I feel that everyone on the stage is in the story with body and soul, I throw myself also into the fray, forgetting the world around.  In this production, for example, given the end I designed, I struggle to finish the show without crying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In my previous post, you could see the work done to establish confidence and familiarity between Ping, Pong, Pang and the children in my production of Turandot. Now, in this picture (a speedy cliché taken with my phone yesterday), you can see them in action, surrounded by the Palace, illuminated in a way that makes the building look like in a cartoon footage, or with a "Lego look", if you prefer. To the far right, the Lego model the kids are working in during the show..

 

 

 

 

The Build Starts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

José Cura (official)

 https://vimeo.com/181367152

First Rehearsal with Children of Turandot

 

"During the first scene of my Turandot production, the 3 masks, Ping, Pang and Pong, will interact with kids, building lanterns, playing with Lego, etc. (the rest you will discover during the show). Yesterday, I spent some minutes making them feel at easy with their adults partners and giving them the time to get familiar with the stage props."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Production Photos

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Curtain Call and Backstage Photos

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Act II

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nessun dorma

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Act I:  Non piangere, Liù  to end of Act

Click on Photo to listen

 

Act II:  In questa reggia

Click on Photo to listen

 

 

Act II:  Tre enigmi to end of Act

Click on Photo to listen

 

 

Act III:  Nessun dorma

Click on Photo to listen

 

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Note:  This is a machine-based translation.  We offer it only a a general guide but it should not be considered definitive.

Puccini and his Puzzles

 

Forum Opéra

Dominique Joucken

23 September 2016

In 1924, Puccini died while still composing Turandot.  The third act is incomplete:  it lacks the final, grand duet in which Calaf must confront the princess with the heart of ice who will yield to victorious love. The only indication left by Puccini about this duet is written in the score, just after the death of Liù:  "e poi, Tristano" ("and then Tristan"), a vague and inaccurate statement.  [note:  there is, apparently, a good deal more contained in the various snippets and notes Puccini also left.]  First Franco Alfano and more recently Luciano Berio tried to complete the work.  Neither of these efforts is entirely convincing, as it is difficult to find the level of inspiration that the Tuscan master reaches in his ultimate opus.

José Cura, known as a tenor but who is also a director, opts for a radical solution:  he stops the performance where Puccini permanently dropped his pen, which is at the death of Liù and Timur’s brief lamentation.  Without revealing the secret of the staging to future spectators, it is enough to say that Cura uses the last measures to make an allusion to the fate of the composer himself.  Does this option satisfy?  Not really.  First, in concluding the evening with the sacrifice of the slave, the staging moves the focus of the opera to a character who is ultimately secondary and Turandot becomes the story of little Liù.  Then this musicological Jansenism deprives us of the generally adopted final duet written by Alfano which, even if not written in musical lace, nevertheless allows an outlet of the tensions which have accumulated during the opera.  The cosmic accents of these measures provoke a catharsis.

Apart from this questionable choice, the staging of the Argentine works rather well.  Of a fairly classical quality, it is faithful to the indications of the book.  More than merely slavish illustration, José Cura succeeds in recovering the “Turandot tone” so unique to Puccini’s career and so difficult to define: that of an epic choral work in which China unfolds in all its magical sensuality but also its cruelty.  At the same time, the kitsch—a pitfall so common when it comes to Asia—is avoided by thorough work on lighting and costumes.  The ingenious way in which the children’s choir is integrated into the action deserves to be highlighted.

We wrote above about our regret to be deprived of the final duet.  It is all the more frustration because the opera house in Liège brings together two vocal monsters who have the ability to shake the walls of the theater.  The Princess Turandot of Tiziana Caruso has the torrential intensity desired by Puccini.  Her [voice] is that of an Isolde, a Brünnhilde, an Elektra but without the vibrato that plagues so many of these vocal battleships.  She also knows how to lighten it in moments of tenderness, giving rise to half-tints that creeps into the memory in contrast to the passionate flashes that proceeds or follows.  One can only imagine how this sea of ice would have melted into the arms of Calaf.  José Cura has (almost) lost nothing from his glorious period on discs in the late 1990s, where he played the chained Samson and Pagliacci without flinching.  The voice is always ample, fastened on physical and technical bases at all times.  He must be seen on stage, his legs slightly spread, his neck tucked between his shoulders, beginning to roar like a wildcat.  His timbre has a baritone coloring, along the lines of a Ramon Vinay, at the same time having the ability to go for the high notes without bleaching his voice.  There was a slight disappointment at the beginning of Act III, in the famous “Nessun dorma,” where Cura seemed to choose not to give everything.  An interpretative decision, temporary fatigue or a concern to preserve himself for the rest?  It is impossible to know but the audience, galvanized by the performances in Acts I and II, seem disappointed.

In total contrast to the athletic figure of Calaf, Heather Engebretson’s Liù is so slender and petite she looks like she is from the children’s choir.  The voice corresponds:  pure, fragile, diaphanous.  Initially the format sounds a little “small” but the young American looked to resources that allowed her to reach over the orchestra and touch the hearts of the audience in the death that closes the performance and allowed for triumphant applause.  The Timur of Luca Dall’Amico was a model of classical singing, a noble and powerful bass that gave his character emotion and gravity.  The roles of Ping, Pang and Pong, who constantly mingled comical, lyrical and rhythmic vivacity, were well sung by Patrick Delcour, Xavier Rouillon and Papuna Tchuradze, all three excellent actors.

The choir was invested and homogenous but on opening night there were many issues.  The Orchestra of the Royall Opera of Wallonia seemed visibly pleased to play the lavish parts from Puccini at the top of his symphonic art.  A little too enthusiastic, perhaps, with Chief Paolo Arrivabeni sometimes struggling to contain the waves that rose from the pit and tended to cover the singers. 

In conclusion, this Turandot was a captivating show, one which opened with great fanfare the opera season at Liège.  The bar has been placed very high for the sequel (Nabucco).

 

 

Turandot

LIÈGE

Opéra Royal de Liège

9/23/16

Opera News

THE OPÉRA ROYAL DE LIÈGE opened its season with Puccini’s Turandot without the usual Alfano finale, but ending instead with the death of Liù. Toscanini had chosen this option for the work’s premiere, for, despite a few sketches by the composer, his death robbed us of knowing precisely how he would have dealt with the redemptive love of Calaf and Turandot. It is perhaps overly romantic to suggest that Puccini’s creativity was thwarted by the challenge of a happy ending. Renaissance man José Cura, was at once star tenor, director and designer of the show, with Paolo Arrivabeni conducting the Liège chorus and orchestra. When the audience entered the auditorium, children were busy making a Lego model of a temple and putting the finishing touches to paintings of the costumes. The Mandarin, baritone Roger Joakim, entered as an exasperated contemporary schoolteacher, cajoling his pupils into the telling of the ancient legend before donning his costume. The curtain then rose on a fairy tale image of the temple, inspired by the children’s imagination. It was a valid idea, but unfortunately the stylized temple looked rather too much like a 1950s take on chinoiserie than a cutting-edge concept.  

Cura’s best ideas came in his treatment of Ping, Pang and Pong—a trio of characters who often irritate rather than charm. He treated them as three principal characters of the commedia dell’arte, Pantalone, Arlecchino and Dr Balanzone, before dressing up in their official Chinese costumes for the riddles. This brought a darker brooding quality to the trio, who were even touching as they spoke of their past lives, led by the excellent baritone Patrick Delcour as Ping. 

Cura tried to cram too many tempting ideas into the final minutes of this shortened version. There is no music to accompany a last minute appearance of the dead composer, or Liù’s seemingly angelic pardon, but ending the opera with the poor girl’s death does put the opera in line with the heroines of La Bohème and Madama Butterfly. Liège was fortunate to have a scene stealing Liù in diminutive young American soprano Heather Engebretson. After a hesitant Act I aria, she reappeared with tragic poise and sweetly floated phrases for her climactic death scene, garnering the most applause from the first night audience on September 23, aided by some impassioned last-act singing from bass Luca Dall’Amico as Timur. This sentimental ending robs from Turandot her moment of transformation, somewhat sidelining the character—one suspects that neither the formidable Turandots of ages past, such as Eva Turner and Birgit Nilsson, would have gone with the plan. 

Tiziana Caruso’s sensual dramatic soprano made her seem a woman confused by her own sexuality, rather than an icy princess; her Turandot was intrigued by the arrival of the all-conquering Calaf, and shocked by the shattering reality of Liù’s death. “In questa reggia” and the climax of the riddle scene were spoiled by top Bs and Cs in which tension produced an unfortunate beat in her voice. Tenor Cura was in his very best form, however, with a secure heroic presence, and a roof raising “Nessun dorma”. 

Arrivabeni conducted a well paced performance but one lacking in orchestral detail; the chorus of children was excellent, their adult colleagues sounded in need of more voices. The production was dedicated to Cura’s friend and colleague, the recently deceased soprano Daniela Dessi, “Dany” to her friends. This was an evening of traditional vocal values, worthy of the artist who had made a number of appearances for this company.   —Stephen J. Mudge

 

 

Note:  This is a machine-based translation.  We offer it only a a general guide but it should not be considered definitive.

 

Anaclase

 27 septembre 2016

Faithful servant of Puccini, José Cura was here in more than one role.  Indeed, although the Argentinean is known for his operas, perhaps some are unaware that he composes, conducts, and for the last ten years has been staging operas.  He does so with seriousness and intelligence.

In reference to the original fable, Cura convened a group of children, who through a series of fun activities (painting, Legos, and so on) on the front edge of the stage announced the book ("Dal deserto al mar").  Rather than spreading outward, the Imperial City rose toward the rafters to allow the choir to be placed in the side galleries and ‘buried’ dungeons in the stage floor with little more than the torsos of the prisoners shown—creating an ingenious sounding board as much as a symbolic jail.  While the students dress their teacher as the Mandarin, three accomplices wearing the masks usually associated with Commedia dell'arte arrived to further connect reality and fantasy as the Ministers [Ping/Pang/Pong].  They offered the comic touch (phallic sword, Spiderman t-shirt)…

Dressed without exotic kitsch, strong singers surrounded José Cura (Calaf), a tenor of flawless strength but with heartbreaking tenderness when he whispered "Dimmi il mio nome".  The title role was taken by Tiziana Caruso, whose dramatic soprano was soft and creamy.  North American Heather Engebretson (Liù) offered promising crystalline energy.  Luca Dall’Amico (Timur) demonstrated valor, agility and great breath control.  

The sublime production was dedicated to Cura’s former singing partner, the divine Daniela Dessi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BravoCura Review

For reasons never (success)fully articulated, management at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie elected to break with nearly 100 years of tradition to offer a truncated version of Giacomo Puccini’s last masterpiece, Turandot, despite the great composer’s deathbed plea that the work be performed only after it was completed.  The result was a production that promised much, delivered a great deal, but in the end failed to satisfy.     

The house made one correct decision:  they hired the best possible director to stage the abbreviated opera, one who knows this work intimately and whose fertile imagination overcomes obstacles that would stymie lesser artists.  José Cura, who also designed the set and sang the role of Calaf, approached the work with a deep understanding of Puccini’s motivation and a reverence for both book and composition.  His plan seemed admirably sensible but hardly simplistic:  it took creativity and vision to slice open the stage floor to invoke the horror of Turandot’s reign while introducing the element of school kids learning about the ancient story and occasionally interacting with the characters.  Incorporating tradition while breaking boundaries distinguishes many of Cura productions and this Turandot could have been a model of timelessness, if only….. Unfortunately, the mandated abbreviation distorted the narrative beyond the director’s control, shifting the dramatic momentum from Turandot to Liù.  And without the final confrontation between Calaf and Turandot (the only time they are alone) and its triumphant conclusion the audience was left in limbo, denied the catharsis that comes with the resolution of the drama. Cura crafted as fine an emotional ending as possible under the circumstances, but it wasn’t Turandot

As a singing actor, Cura managed a unique interpretation which added depth to Calaf, a character too often portrayed as a shallow, ruthless, cold-blooded brute.  The Argentine is thoroughly familiar with Puccini’s heroes:  he, more than most, seems to understand that this last opera was the culmination of the Puccini male / female dynamic, the logical next step from the composer who created the heroic Mario Cavaradossi in Tosca and the girl who had never given away a kiss in Fanciulla.  The yin / yang of Turandot and Liù, the two extremes of femininity, can convince only if the object of their love is truly worthy.  As played with nobility and sensitivity by Cura, this Calaf certainly is:  he steadfastly remains principled and honorable, treating his father with love and respect and a slave girl and a princess with equal dignity and kindness, evincing fearlessness in the face of death and offering grace when he could have claimed victory.  Vocally, Cura was remarkable, singing with security, freely unleashing the immense power of his voice but just as easily pulling it back to release it as spun silk when needed.  The private moment between Turandot and Calaf at the end of Act II, when he takes pity on her, was a moment of sheer beauty and indelible sweetness.  Surprisingly, Nessun dorma, sung with an intensity approaching anger, was less successful, not in quality but in character.

Turandot is an intimidating role, one of the most difficult that a dramatic soprano can perform, with the vocal fireworks often reduced to screams rising above the orchestra; few who attempt it survive unscathed.  Tiziana Caruso managed the vocally fiendish role with skill and mostly succeeded; she was less convincing as an actress.  In this production, Turandot picks Calaf as her next suitor and so there is, from the beginning, a certain connectivity and inevitability inherent in their relationship.  Caruso was unable to bring that shading to her characterization, perhaps interpreting too literally her ice princess.  Chemistry between the two leads, as a result, was lacking.

As Liù, Heather Engebretson, a petite woman in the early years of what should be an admirable career, sang with remarkable purity, though marshalling her resources to push through Puccini’s heavy orchestra remained a challenge.  Luca Dall’Amico offered a nicely varnish baritone as Timur.  Patrick Delcour, Xavier Rouillon, and Papuna Tchuradze presented both solid singing and good comic timing as Ping, Pang and Pong.  The chorus, cleverly located along the ramparts of the stylized Forbidden City, convinced; the children’s chorus, on stage throughout the evening as part of the class learning about the tale, where well used.  The orchestra could have used a bit more nuance and occasional restraint but overall created a nice sonic environment.

This production was a charming, warm, and inventive interpretation of 2/3 of Puccini’s masterpiece.  Cura produced the most magical solution one can imagine to end the shortened evening but the constraints imposed on him denied the audience the sense of fulfillment and joy Puccini wanted us to experience:  the redeeming power of love so deep, so true, so strong that death cannot diminish it.  It left us wondering what Cura could have done had he been given the opportunity to stage the complete opera.  Hopefully we will find out someday.

 

BravoCura Random Musings on Turandot

 

The use of the children’s chorus as part of the production was inspired and deserves to be highlighted for the creative use these young singers; however, they remained on the edge of the stage throughout the evening and for much of the time obscured sight-lines for a swathe of the audience.  As a result, there were moments of disembodied singing from the primary cast and, after Liù’s suicide, many saw only Timur and Calaf grieving over an invisible body.  Perhaps a different configuration would have mitigated the issue.

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Lighting was both impressive and overwhelming.  Whenever Turandot was on stage, pure, brilliant white light was focused on her, the reflection off of her white outfits leaching the color out of everything else on stage, including the other characters.  The concept was good—who could resist such a presence—but perhaps, in the interest of better visuals and truer colors, the white light could have been gradually toned down as Turandot thaws and wavers during the evening. 

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Certainly the stage design was in place before anyone realized how tiny Heather Engebretson was (right before the start of Act II, we watched as she gleefully slide between the bars in her cell, her slight body fitting through with room to spare), but her small stature coupled with her being confined in the pits for much of the opera minimized her presence and resulted in her being nearly invisible.  Liù is a secondary role to begin with, thrust out of the shadows by Timur in Act I and then returning to those shadows for much of the rest of the work; anything that further obscures her becomes problematic.  There is always the danger in this role, regardless of where staged, that Liù won’t be present enough, won’t cast a big enough personality, to justify audience sympathy when dies; in this case the dangers were realized.  Finding a way to remain present is just one of those things young artists need to learn as they move forward in their careers.  Hopefully, Engebretson gained insight from watching José Cura.  Even if he magically shrank to 4 foot, he would still command the stage because he has learned the process of self-projection, of sucking up the energy that comes from the stage itself and concentrating it before sending it out toward the audience. 

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Calaf was better without the ponytail.

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Many see Turandot as a bleak and unwieldy opera with such an enormous emotional ‘punch’ with the death of the beloved Liù that it is unable to recover. The completion of Act III by Franco Alfano following Puccini’s outline allows the opera to end as Puccini wanted it to end, with the banishing of darkness, the dawning of a new age, and the triumph of love over death--but with an unfortunately weak start. The exquisite balance of Puccini design, the universality of his themes, the eternal conflict of man and woman and the healing power of love remain relatively intact, less artfully rendered; Liù’s death was a necessary parallel to the death of the Prince of Persia. an essential act that moves concept of love from abstract to real for Turandot, but Alfano fails to allow sufficient time to mourn the loss or to capitalize on its impact. After so many male deaths, a female death is required to break Turandot, to allow her to accept her humanity and embrace love; the yin and yang, the male and female, the Prince and the slave girl, completes the cycle.  Liù’s death allows for the exorcism of Princess Lo-u-Ling and sets Turandot free.  Puccini would have found a way to convey this transition; Alfano, alas, could not.

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Some fault the character of Calaf as being too arrogant, too selfish, too much like Turandot in his single-minded pursuit of goals. Those who think of Calaf as a cad don’t understand Puccini’s relationship with his male heroes--if these men have weaknesses, they are noble weaknesses. To a certain extent, they are the men Puccini wanted to be:  strong, honorable, willing to die for what they believed in, motivated by a love so strong nothing could break it.  Some blame for the misunderstanding is clearly sourced to Alfano’s too quick transition, which doesn't allow Calaf time to to grieve adequately for Liù before moving forward with Turandot.  That wasn’t in keeping with the character Puccini wrote:  from the beginning his Calaf was a compassionate man who fully embraced Liù as an equal and treated her with the same respect he gave his father.  When he offered Turandot his riddle, it wasn’t because he was a master manipulator attempting to further humiliate her but because he was genuinely moved by her distress and because, in deference to her tale of Lo-u-Ling, he wanted to let her know he would not use brute force against her.  Some productions feature a Nessun dorma sung in anger or swagger but in context it is primarily an expression of joy and optimism at besting fate—Calaf has reclaimed his destiny, reunited with his father, and found love.  This is a man who has finally found his way out of darkness and no matter what happens he will have won.  When Liù and Timur are brought in before Turandot in Act III, Puccini’s written instruction is that Calaf sets himself in front of Liù to protect her.  When he ‘allows’ Liù to die, he is fully restrained; instead he gambles that they can survive until dawn if only they keep the secret.  Some odern interpretations feature Calaf signaling his victory over Turandot with a physical assault; that would be totally out of character, as is the idea that any woman who feared rape her entire life would suddenly embrace the man who raped her ludicrous, but even more fundamental is the idea of rape is so outside the universe of Puccini that including it undermines everything he believed in.  Calaf is a true Puccini hero, a transforming agent who guides Turandot away from the blackness and into the light through courage, kindness, generosity, and honor.  He is Puccini’s final hero, representing Puccini’s constant belief in the power of love.  He is a great invention.

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As usually portrayed, Turandot is a much more problematic character than Calaf because all we know of her is contained in exposition and in her In questa reggia.  Until the final act, she doesn't interact with any other character directly; she is a cipher. In Liège, director Cura made an effort to humanize her by building a connection between the Princess and the Prince in the opening scene and again in Act II when Turandot physically reaches out to Calaf (a beautiful moment) but far too often Turandot is denied any human element, making her transition at the end of Act III somewhat improbable.  There are, however, snippets of humanity in Act II that can be emphasized, such when Calaf falters on the final answer and Turandot offers a suggestion that helps him. Certainly her emotional breakdown at the end of the Act II signals the change to come, as does her reaction to Liù’s death (at least in Liège). 

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What weakens Turandot is the abrupt change in tone after the death of Liù.  If some enterprising composer/director/tenor (hint) were to step into the mix and write a better transitional scene—add five minutes more of music, for example—which  better portrays the emotional aftermath of Liù’s suicide, the opera would be the better for it. 

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So many people want to hate Turandot because of its blackness but in many ways it seems to be Puccini’s most optimistic and forward looking work.  It is allegory based on an ancient tale, pitting one man against a seemingly unstoppable and powerful force.  The ending, with Turandot repeating Liù’s name for Calaf, is a fitting end to the nightmare that ensnared too many.

 

Angry Calaf (Nessun Dorma)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last Updated:  Friday, June 09, 2017  © Copyright: Kira