Alex Ollé’s new production of Turandot for the New National Theatre, Tokyo and Tokyo Bunka Kaikan is immediately dislocating. Gone are the familiar Orientialisms, and all the colourful excess audiences raised on a steady diet of Zeffirelli have come to expect, whether with excitement or a sense of the begrudging. Monumental steel and stone structures dominate this evocation of Peking, and when Turandot and the Emperor deign to mingle with the hoi polloi, they descend from the heavens in something resembling a space ship. Designed by Alfons Flores, it’s a cold, brutalist space, awash in Urs Schönebaum’s moody, often stark lighting.

Iréne Theorin. Photos © Masahiko Terashi

This sense of dislocation is heightened by the opening pantomime, key to Ollé’s conception of Turandot as a woman haunted by masculine violence and intergenerational trauma. We see the young princess bear witness to her ancestor’s violent abduction and murder, the director foregrounding not only the precariousness of a reigning, unwed noble, but the very incident that directly informs the way Turandot treats her suitors. It’s an immediately involving conceit, one that refuses to gloss over the implausibility of the opera’s happy ending, and one which takes seriously the pain of its title character and the callousness of Calaf.

Ollé’s production is the first of a two-year international opera project developed by the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan and New National Theatre, Tokyo (NNTT) to showcase Japan’s cultural life in the lead up to the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Summer Festival Opera 2019-20 Japan ↔ Tokyo ↔ World. The idea to present Turandot was proposed by Kazushi Ono, Artistic Director of the NNTT, who invited Ollé to direct after a long and fruitful history working together.

Iréne Theorin, Eri Nakamura and Teodor Ilincăi

Representative of the project’s international scope, Ono himself led the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra (of which he is Principal Conductor) in a very fine account of the score. Sensitive to matters of Puccinian style, his pacing and attention to orchestral detail were excellent, and he drew highly sympathetic playing from the orchestra. Never cheating the big moments, Ono nevertheless displayed an affinity for the smaller gestures, coaxing daringly soft, gauzy sounds from his players to create real moments of beauty. Equally impressive were the chorus, both adults and children, who sang with ample power, commitment and absolute security. Their precise diction was also to be commended, with both playing and singing heard to best advantage in the brilliant acoustics of the New National Theatre, Tokyo’s Opera Palace.

The quality of the principals was more variable. In the title role, Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin was a solid dramatic presence, unyielding and firm of purpose in her first appearances. But she sounded frequently strained, and though her high notes mostly landed on pitch, they were often acidic. Her Italian was not always so Italianate either, with vowels frequently occluded and consonants sometimes mushy. Despite this, she was eloquent of both voice and gesture, easily conveying a Turandot terrified of losing her agency and suspicious of Calaf’s professions of desire. Though not a complete realisation of the role, this was nevertheless a compelling one.

Teodor Ilincăi

As Calaf, Romanian Teodor Ilincăi demonstrated a handsome, good-sized voice that surmounted many of Puccini’s most demanding passages with ease. His Nessun Dorma was refreshingly free of the usual tenor theatrics, the aria seeming to grow organically from the dramatic circumstances, while his Non piangere, Liù had the requisite tenderness. But his acting did little to differentiate his Calaf from other conventional portrayals of the prince, meaning Ollé’s obvious positioning of his character as an antagonist, hellbent on securing Turandot’s hand and throne, never quite found its legs.

No such misgivings about Eri Nakamura’s meltingly sung Liù, however. The Japanese soprano’s perfectly weighted, rich lyric instrument was deployed intelligently and always in service of the text, establishing a complex portrait of a woman aware that the object of her affections isn’t quite worth it. A performer capable of extracting every bit of pathos from Puccini’s melodies, she did justice to both her arias, demonstrating a good amount of vocal steel in her confrontation with Turandot.

Eri Nakamura

Riccardo Zanelatto’s Timur was a beacon of dignity, bringing power and vibrance of tone to the old king. His rapport with Nakamura’s Liù was most affecting, both singers quickly establishing their characters’ deep love for and trust in one another. Also vividly characterised were the Ping, Pang and Pong of Takashi Masu, Takumi Yogi and Toshiaki Murakami, conceived of by Ollé as gravediggers for Turandot’s victims. Genuinely funny, they too displayed an innate rapport that made their often too-long scenes feel dramatically necessary. As Altoum, Hiroshi Mochiki was in stentorian voice, showing us the as yet undimmed authority of the emperor, while Yuichi Toyoshima provided fine support as the Mandarin.

All in all, a strong concept from Ollé that needs only a more committed Calaf to pull it off. This Turandot is a promising first instalment in the Summer Festival Opera 2019-20 Japan ↔ Tokyo ↔ World, to be followed by a production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg.

Alex Ollé’s production of Turandot plays the Cultural Arts Theatre in Sapporo on August 3 and 4


More information about the Summer Festival Opera 2019-20 Japan ↔ Tokyo ↔ World can be found here

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