Just to be present for an opera performance at Taormina's Teatro Greco is magical enough. The unique ambience which it provides enhances the type of lavishly spectacular performance I experienced of Puccini's swan song.
The performance on 3 September was a replica of the one put on in Syracuse's Teatro Greco, exactly a month before. This Turandot was produced by famous Sicilian tenor Marcello Giordani who doubled as Calaf, son of Timur, the blind exiled King of Tartary. Having the leading main, male protagonist doubling as producer is rather uncommon. Giordani believes that such productions enable traditional Italian opera to blend with monumental sites such as this Teatro Greco and its special, magical atmosphere. This unique setting, thanks to Turandot easily transported one to the exotic Orient.
As everybody knows, at Turandot's core there is the riddle of the three enigmas set by the cruel, dazzlingly beautiful, man-hating Princess Turandot. It is a test for the man wanting to marry her to be willing to risk his life for because death is the price of failure.
Puccini's unexpected death prevented his completing the opera. This poses another enigma. How would Puccini have finished his opera and create a cruel princess, converted to love simply by a few minutes more of insistence in Calaf's courtship? That is how Alfano finished the work and this final enigma will never be solved.
However, enigmas and attempts to unravel them could be fun, but, not at the cost of overshadowing the music, the pomp and lavish spectacle which this production promised to be....and was. The opera requires three very good voices respectively: for the title role, for Calaf and for Liù. A baritone and two other tenors are needed for the trio of Ping, Pang and Pong: and they are not to be underestimated.
Georgian-Russian soprano Elina Ratiani was a winner in this exacting and very challenging role. It was her debut role and at 31 is one of the youngest ever to have tackled it. Her voice has a distinctly beautiful timbre. She has beauty and presence galore and despite her 10-kg costume, she moved about with ease both in the ceremonial parts and when exploding in anger and frustration by Calaf's solving of the enigmas. Like a bad loser she tries but fails to change the rules of the game.
Elina Ratiani had to be convincingly cruel, merciless and hard-hearted. Sworn to avenge the dishonouring of her ancestress in the same palace from which her father Altoum rules China, she hates men, exploits her beauty to lure them to compete for her hand so as to destroy them. She treats them with contempt, gloats as she presides over the execution of the Prince of Persia, puts Liù to the torture...and all this could be felt in the voice when it was at its imperious and angriest best. It could not have been possible to express these different facets of the role's character if she did not have such versatile expressive skill.
There is another variation on the theme of cruelty. This is Puccini's because of the exactingly high tessitura for the voice. He is cruel to Turandot because she is cruel and condemned never to know the bliss of loving and being loved. Puccini died before he could further develop the character. Elina Ratiani tackled the vocal part superbly never losing clarity and never shrill, not even in the highest reaches. Finally she became a woman changed. Maybe too fast for some,but opera after all, is a suspension of credibility and reality.
Calaf's role is a straight-forward one. In exile and finally reunited with his father, his heady quest for Turandot's hand blinds him to Liù's unrequited love. Marcello Giordani has a commanding and imposing stage presence with a strong voice and a very warm timbre. As Calaf he forged ahead with determination and assurance, bold and brave willing to risk all. Seeing Turandot is enough for him and he strikes the gong announcing his suit. Giordani also leaves boldness behind and shows his more tender side as in Non piangere Liù and later with perhaps a touch of grateful remorse at her death.
The enigma scene with its powerful escalation orchestra and soaring voices is to me the most exciting moment in the opera. This was undoubtedly one of his finest moments the other being the long final scene and difficult duet with Turandot.
Soprano Maria Luisa Lattante's Liù was a late repreplacement for Sharon Azrieli who was inspired. She started off very well in Signor ascolta and made a dependable devoted slave. In her second aria Tu che di gel sei cinta there was a minimal hint of fatigue and eventually making a convincing exit: another of Puccini's (and Turandot's) victims.
The interpretation of the trio of characters who priovide some light relief in this dark gale was excellent. The roles were taken by baritone Giovanni Guagliardo (Ping, the Lord Chancellor); tenor Riccardo Palazzo (Pang, the Imperial Major-Domo), and tenor Enrico Terrone, (Pong, Master Chef of the Imperial Kitchens). Very often elsewhere reduced to a trio of farcical characters, artistic director Enrico Stinchelli rightly had them perform partly as a light diversion. This was mainly through their very well co-ordinated antics which ranged from the stylised to the more natural movements. They also made realistic assessments and comments and are far from funny when they abet Liù's torture. Bass Angelo Sapienza made a fine, resonant Timur while tenor Marco Zarbano's Altoum was unfortunately reedy, unsteady and barely audible.
The orchestra ably handled by James Meena was of course a prime contributor in creating the necessary atmosphere, combined well with the visual element of the production. Also taking part were the Coro Interscolastico "Vincenzo Bellini", (dir. Daniela Giambra) and the Coro Lirico Siciliano (dir. Francesco Costa). The mis-en-scéne was very good and the carefully choreographed crowd scenes well-handled. Paola Avallato's sets were very good too and Stinchelli's superb light effects, projected on stage and some of the ancient stone-work, added to the magic and highlighted Oscar-winning Franca Squarciapino's luxuriously quite stunning costumes.
The production was put on by the YAP+ (Atélier Young Artists Plus) in collaboration with the Festival Pucciniano di Torre del Lago and of Carolina Opera of Charlotte, North Carolina, USA. A production on this scale required and had the support of various entities such as the Regione Siciliana;
AssessoratoTurismo, Sport e Spettacolo; Assessors to Beni Cultural and the Comune di Taormina.
ALBERT G. STORACE