In the general upheaval caused by the changing of the guard at the helm of the Festival Puccini, the most brutal disfiguration concerned Turandot.  Until one week ago the site of the Festival indicated that the four scheduled performances of the “unfinished one” would be presented with four different endings: the Luciano Berio finale, the original Alfano refused by Toscanini, the standard Alfano that the mercurial conductor obtorto collo finally accepted, and the version performed at the opera’s premiere when Toscanini, in one of the most legendary gestures in operatic history, left the podium right after Liù’s funereal march, the very last scene fully written by Puccini.  In addition to filling the house and providing enjoyment for the masses, a festival devoted to the art of a single composer should have the purpose of offering cultural and intellectual stimulation, shedding light on obscure sides of popular operas, bringing to the attention different versions of the same work, and in this case there would be plenty of occasions, as Puccini kept retouching nearly all his “creatures” almost obsessively with endless afterthoughts.  For example, while almost everyone knows about the tortuous journey of Madama Butterfly, not too many are aware that the “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” from Manon Lescaut performed today is a revision made in 1922 , that is almost thirty years after its premiere. Everyone would win: the audience would flock to a beloved opera, and the more jaded and curious listener would have a chance to hear something different.  In this case, at the end we were left with the same “traditional” Alfano finale, this time fortunately comprehensive of “Del primo pianto”, usually excised at Torre del Lago (or at least in the last few years).  Moreover, a conference of scholars was programmed to discuss the thorny Turandot last act duet affair, but it also fell under the merciless ax.  I ignore how many additional costs this cultural-philological operation would have involved, but I truly hope it will be seriously taken into consideration in the future.

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A second viewing of Angelo Bertini’s production that was first seen last year fully confirmed my extremely favourable past impression, and cannot but repeat what I wrote at the time.  Bertini, who was at his very first stage production, is an eclectic local artist who also designed sets and costumes.  As he explained in last season’s programme, he intended to emphasise Puccini’s interest in the cultural trends of his times, giving life to an “art deco” Turandot whose black lacquered frame is adorned with the gold doodles typical of the period.  This frame contains golden structures that would not be out of place in the Empire State Building of New York.  The production is visually striking and never fails to surprise the audience scene after scene with new ideas, new bold colours, opulent costumes and coups de théâtre.  Particularly effective is the idea of introducing the protagonist (in Act I) inside a huge round revolving moon.  Each gesture seemed to have a raison d’être, and I suspect that there were several operatic hints: for example, in Act III Turandot comes on stage wearing over her head a white veil that she keeps open with her arms outstretched like a cross, something that reminded me of Esclarmonde’s famous poster.  Considering also that this was his debut as a stage director, Bertini showed remarkable skills in dealing with the huge number of people that an “epic” such as Turandot demands.   The only faux pas came at the very end when the chorus removed their headgear waving them as if to wish a happy honeymoon to the newly weds.  In a few words, it’s an instant classic, which should travel to many other opera companies.

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The Festival Puccini has been hiring Giovanna Casolla for the title role for several continual seasons.  Ms. Casolla is a beloved soprano with a very loyal multitude of admirers who have been following her for over four decades, and this is why the issue of her vocal longevity inevitably comes up whenever one writes or speaks about her; in the past I also ungallantly mentioned her age, of which the soprano however makes no mystery.  If I still call attention to it is only because in these past four years since I came back to Italy I heard Ms. Casolla in seven performances of Turandot ranging from the exceptional to the barely acceptable, and not necessarily in chronological order.  While, for instance, a couple of years ago in Pisa her instrument sounded to me irremediably compromised, in the performance under review she revealed an incommensurably fresher voice, secure in her thrusts toward the numerous high Bs and Cs, displaying a fine legato and a breathtaking mezzavoce as, for example, in “Figlio del cielo”; her volume has not diminished, but she could aways rely on it, even in those occasions when her instrument gave signs of oxidation. She did not let herself be drowned by the huge voice of Rudy Park, one of the few authentic spinto tenors active today, able to hurl tonnes of sound to the high heavens, and what’s more such sheer volume is accompanied by good schooling that allows him long breaths: feats such as the never-ending B flat on “La vita, padre, è qui, Turandot!” or holding the high A all the way through the last gong strike elicited an enthusiastic reaction from the audience.  Strangely enough, he refrained from the high C option on “ti voglio tutt’ardente d’amor!”, widely compensated by the B natural of “Nessun dorma”, promptly encored (and at least in this case the encore allowed the  performing of music almost inevitably modified to make space for an applause).  Although I personally prefer a more lyrical and meatier soprano in the role of the sweet slave (in a few words a Mimì rather than a Musetta), Alida Berti was a very competent Liù, performing with dexterity all that was required, with lovely messe di voce on “m’hai sorriso” and on the final B flat of “Signore, ascolta”; likewise commendable was the floating delivery of “Tanto amore segreto”, and “Tu che di gel sei cinta” was touching in its simplicity.  Luigi Roni, though still in raw voice, was more convincing as the old Timur than Angelotti the previous evening, and the three masks, Nicolò Ayroldi (Ping), Gregory Bonfatti (Pang) and Orfeo Zanetti (Pong) managed to amalgamate their voices while making their individual timbres distinctly heard.  Claudio Ottino (The Mandarin), Marco Voleri (Altoum), Francesca Borrelli and Sofia Nagast (the two servants) and Roberto Ferraro (The Prince of Persia) completed the cast.  The Chorus this time revealed some imprecisions.

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Bruno Nicoli may not have offered particularly personal insights of the score (and in an open air theatre with flawed acoustics this might be the best solution), but missed very little of the opera’s gorgeous instrumental colour or dramatic thrust.  The artful way in which he shaped the hesitant orchestral phrases as Calaf ponders Turandot’s riddles is itself a lesson in Puccinian tension and eloquence.  All in all, his conducting was squarely in the sign of a secure, tranquil and glorious tradition.

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Unfortunately there was an unexpected musical accompaniment when, during the aria “Del primo pianto”, as the clock stroke midnight, extremely annoying fireworks crackling was heard for what sounded like an eternity, coming from a nearby disco or club: at least if these fireworks had waited just a few more minutes, they would have much less inappropriately and untimely provided the framework for the final “and they lived happily ever after”.

Nicola Lischi

five stars

Photo credit: Giorgio Andreuccetti

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