Turandot, Berlin Staatsoper review — boos and cheers for Puccini’s opera

“My friend told me: it’s colourful, it’s loud — you’re going to love it!” one breathless woman told another in the toilets at the interval.

The Berlin Staatsoper’s new production of Puccini’s Turandot is a calculated crowd-pleaser. Philipp Stölzl’s productions are invariably spectacular, and with a fragile Zubin Mehta on the podium after many cancellations, and a live broadcast to the square outside for the general public, this one was punting for popularity even before the curtain went up.

At the centre of Stölzl’s show is an enormous puppet version of Turandot. Its giant head and arms take up almost the entirety of the stage, leaving little room for the chorus to do anything but sidle on, sing and shuffle off again. The technical crew could often be seen battling anxiously with the circus-like doll. The chorus wear boiler suits and the soloists’ garb owes a debt to Star Wars, though this Asian play-the-game-and-lose-your-life construct could also be a nod to Netflix’s splatter thriller Squid Game.

An enormous puppet version of Turandot dominates Philipp Stölzl’s production © Matthias Baus

Puccini’s last work, finished later by various composers (sadly the Staatsoper chose Alfano’s traditionalist finale, not Berio’s lean into modernism), in which the cold-hearted princess Turandot beheads all her suitors until prince Calaf forces her to love him, has a problematic plot at the best of times.

Quite what Stölzl is aiming for, apart from a series of breathtaking tableaux, remains unclear. He stays on the “fairytale” surface, never delving into who these characters might be or what motivates them. They sing, gesticulate and die. Even Turandot stabs herself at the end, which should be surprising, but somehow reads as just another vapid gesture.

Despite a few heartfelt boos for the direction team, the audience responded with a standing ovation. Perhaps that was partly for the overwhelming ferocity of the Staatskapelle’s playing under Mehta, or the impressively full-blooded nature of Yusif Eyvazov’s Calaf, or Elena Pankratova’s stately account of the title role. But all the soloists seem a little strained above the stupendous volume of the orchestra.

René Pape’s Timur is gruff, Aida Garifullina’s Liù fragile. Andrés Moreno García, Siyabonga Maqungo and David Oštrek as Ping, Pang and Pong give top-drawer performances. But who thought it was a good idea to cast ageing tenor Siegfried Jerusalem as Altoum? He does his formidable past no favours by attempting this part. You feel the audience suffer with him as he struggles and fails to sing the notes. Surely someone in the house could have intervened?

If you think opera should be all colour and noise, without any emotional depth, this is an evening for you.

★★☆☆☆

To July 10, then returning in February 2023, staatsoper-berlin.de

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