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She Kills Men for Pleasure

Kirov's TurandotThe operatic traveling circus that presents itself as Kirov Opera – of the Mariinsky Theatre – has a stop in Washington again. Last year we got an excellent Boris Godunov and bits and pieces, the year before Mazeppa and Eugene Onegin. This year it’s non-Russian fare (at least on paper) with Puccini’s Turandot and Wagner’s Parsifal and the Verdi Requiem thrown in for good measure. That’s a barnstorming blockbuster, one of the greatest grandiose Operas ever written, and the popular “secular Opera” (von Bülow), the famous Verdi work.

Judging just from Turandot we can conclude: How lucky we are! The Kirov under Gergiev bring their most excellent orchestra (the WNO orchestra has much catching up to do, still), singers that are throughout very good (most of them still less well known in the West), and sets that show the WNO that interesting productions can be done on budget even when the whole thing has to fit into a few suitcases without the result looking like the curtain travesty from The Maid of Orleans.

Other Reviews:

Charles T. Downey, A Night in St. Petersburg (DCist, February 20)

Tim Page, China Opening (Washington Post, February 21)

Tim Smith, Kirov cuts loose with strong 'Turandot' (Baltimore Sun, February 21)

T. L. Ponick, Puccini's 'Turandot' dazzles (Washington Times, February 21)
Sunday night was the curtain for the first of the Kirov’s productions with Puccini’s last (and unfinished) work: Turandot. The story of the Chinese Princess Turandot who, like every effective opera character, has several severe psychological pathologies. Hers is the pleasure she takes in seeing her suitors ‘offed’, one after another, stemming from deficient coping with her mother’s fate of arranged marriage, perceived as (or indeed having been) rape. Of course, merely being touched by any mortal would defile a good Chinese empress, creature of light, daughter of the Gods. Enter Prince Calaf (narcissistic personality disorder) who wants to ‘conquer’ Turandot. Singing peasant girl Liù (codependency, pathological selflessness, and masochism) ushers in some drama with her thwarted love and fatal (literally) self-sacrifice, and the three administrators Pang, Ping, and Pong offer comic relief and a little sub-plot excursion. An Emperor watches aloof in the style of old wise kings, Timur, an old man, stumbles about, an anonymous Mandarin lobs off heads, and a Persian Prince provides one such.

Reviews from the London Performances:

Tim Ashley, Turandot - Royal Opera House (The Guardian Unlimited, August 6, 2005)

George Hall, Turandot (The Stage Online, August 8, 2005)
The stage setting (director Charles Roubaud, set designer Iseabelle Partiot-Pieri) is evocative, simple, and beautiful – with many deft touches of color and choreography. The costumes (Katia Duflot) traditional throughout, an inspired choice the wafty, cloudy white and pale girls that accompany the execution proceedings. Traditional, not conservative (just like the opera itself); a setting for an opera that can easily succeed on account of its own story’s strength. Unfurling banners that contain the three answers to Turandot’s three questions were a visual peak; a phosphorescent dragon at the finale more confusing than concluding.

Kirov's Turandot: Vladimir Galuzin as CalafGergiev’s orchestra performed as a top Russian orchestra would: Refreshingly raw, never comfortably sailing but with playing and technique mostly above criticism. Searing at times and packing all the punch one could need. Gergiev worked out the abrasive parts of the score; unearthing the true beauty of Puccini who succeeded in writing a traditional Italian opera in the 1920s that stands the test of time because he uses all the musical means and sophistication at his disposal to achieve his result. Wozzeck – a contemporary opera, after all – it ain’t, but the sound/year discrepancy was underplayed, not heightened. As Dominic McHugh (and plenty others, I am sure) once wrote: “Bitonality, pentatonic scales, and a full percussion section show the influence of the wider musical landscape on Puccini - one can frequently hear strains of Stravinsky, Berg, and even Poulenc dotted throughout. This is not, as some writers would suggest, merely a mindless piece of musical theatre, but a highly imaginative attempt to push Italian opera into the twentieth century.”

I don’t know who these writers are, who would suggest a “mindless piece of musical theatre” – this isn’t La Bohème, after all – and I’d point out that the pentatonic scales service the naïve chinoiserie, not musical modernism. But important is that, for all the somewhat hackneyed arias that have been established firmly out of context – with greasy overweight Italian tenors milking them for ultimate effect over waxing string sections, this is a compelling, a great opera with good music.

Kirov's Turandot: Irina Gordei as TurandotMusic that was supported by a stupendous Vladimir Galuzin as Calaf (rightfully recipient of the loudest cheers), an appreciable, bold Irina Gordei as Turandot, a fine, later timid Irma Gigolashvili as Liù (it is my understanding that she may not sing on the 25th), as well as Alexander Timchenko, Andrei Spekhov, and Andrei Ilyushinikov as thankfully straight-laced Pangchev, Pingchov, Pongsky. They didn’t ham it up, which served the opera and their characters well. Along with Emperor Viktor Vikhrov (appropriately fragile-voiced: either good characterization or casting) and Mandarin Edem Umerov, the Chorus and the rest of the cast were all beholden to a most curious Italian pronunciation: There were times, in the beginning, especially, where it was nearly impossible to tell whether the singing went on in Russian or Italian. A Russian flavor was also discernable in the costumes: Orthodoxish looking hats for Taoist priests; in every Chinese peasant girl three-quarters a Babuschka. It looked like two dozen of Dostoyevsky’s disenfranchised stranded on the set of The Bridge on the River Kwai. “Nessun Dorma” didn’t get the greatest breath control from Galuzin; the aria got applause, not the interpretation – but it was well coped with by the orchestra and Gergiev.

A Turandot with a Turandot that is more a Verdian heroine on a revenge mission than offering that unlikely, innocent, head-cocked cruelty of a rose-oiled and lavender-scented Turandot-child-princess. She's a woman I'd advise anyone against loving falling for a man I'd recommend running away from. She: all cruelty, cold steel and warm blood on her hands (Liù plunges herself into the knife held by Turandot, thereby underscoring the torture-princess' guilt), he: unbridled passion that has long entered the realm of unconscionable obsession. With that dark characterization, perhaps they actually deserve each other. Forgive her some lesser notes on top and the occasional garble, enjoy Galuzin, enjoy Puccini: Enjoy an evening that will remind every audience member again how opera was once a bona fide popular pasttime. Repeat performances on Thursday, February 23rd and Saturday, February 25th, at 7:30 PM.

Alex Ross's article in The New Yorker this week is à propos: Puccini Remixed (February 27, 2006). Thanks also to Alex for linking to Ionarts at The Rest Is Noise.