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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Big is not always beautiful



What a glorious load of old Grand Guignol rubbish ‘Turandot’ is. A guilty pleasure if ever there was one! The production which I saw last night in the Liceu directed by Núria Espert (in spite of the interesting possibilities suggested by the photograph on the cover of the programme) did little to illuminate what is, after all, a fairy tale.

The first appearance of Turandot with the massive idol in the background breaking in two to reveal a backlit Turandot wreathed in CO2 looking like an alien was impressive if corny. The crowd scenes were large, populous and highly mannered. “So what?” I hear you ask. It is, after all, a piece not noted for its verisimilitude!

I’m not sure that any singing in live performance of ‘Turandot’ is going to match expectations, but I am left vaguely dissatisfied by the whole bunch of singers in this production. I thought that Liú (Norah Amsellem) had a disconcerting vibrato until I heard Turandot (Georgina Lukács) and for me, Amsellem eventually produced the most satisfying performance in the show.

Calaf’s first notes did not encourage confidence and he never rose above the competent. The production of The Aria was mystifying with poor old Calaf in shadow for most of the song. But at least he did whack (and with real enthusiasm) a real gong when signifying that he would attempt the three riddles.

Is ‘Turandot’ really as ‘empty’ as this production makes it? There is spectacle a plenty but no substance that I can see. The appearance of the Emperor was especially impressive emerging from behind the idol on a truck moving downstage flanked by two immense Chinese dragons and a suitably ghost like array of councillors. But apart from looking good, what did it really do?

The eponymous villain of the piece deserves some comment. Her first notes reminded me vividly of my response to hearing Rita Hunter in the WNO production of ‘Turandot’ many years ago: total horror. I simply cannot respond with any degree of pleasure to the level of vibrato fuelled scream which characterized most of Lukács’ performance.

The orchestra under Giuliano Carell did not seem to have their usual poise and there was a marked lack of coherence and fluidity in some of the ensemble pieces and many of the entrances were not as ‘clean’ as I would expect from an orchestra of this quality.

The feeling that I was left with was that this was a posturing and safe production that swapped depth for spectacle. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. The ending which seemed to have Turandot kill herself for love showed that there was thought but no follow through. A missed opportunity I thought.

Emerging from the Liceu after an opera performance onto a crowded portion of the night time Ramblas jostling with pimps, prostitutes, chancers and foreigners looking for a good time while holding my programme like a passport to middle class respectability is not a pleasant experience. It is something of an abrupt transition from high art to low life in a few steps, and I scurry my way through the crowds to my ludicrously expensive parking space and start the drive home.

There is nothing which encourages my contempt for my fellow man as driving along the two narrow roads that flank the Ramblas.

Night time pedestrians do not seem to have grasped the simple fact that they are made of vulnerable flesh and cars are made of metal and that contact between the two usually results in the pedestrian coming off worse. But no, gaily chatting on their mobile phones and looking neither to left nor right they march into the middle of the road with the propriatorial air of Macadam himself!

As this is Spain one must (how can one?) not forget the suicidal antics of cyclists and, especially, motor cyclists. It is now my passionately held belief that, in any accident involving motor cyclists their broken bodies should be swept to the side of the road and left there to rot – much in the manner of ancient punishments where criminals were kept in cages pendent from the battlements of castles as a warning to others.

Rather harsh?

Drive in Spain for more than a couple of days and you will share my feelings and be amazed at my moderation!
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