Wednesday, 14 January 2009

The Muse, or, Voglio Turandot!

As that title might lead you to guess, I've just been to see "Turandot" at the Royal Opera. It's one of my favourite operas, a fact I tend to conceal as it provokes confusion or outright anger - "How can you like that? - the story is horrible..." To which I can only say, are the stories of "Madama Butterfly" or "La Traviata" not horrible, then? "Traviata" is even (loosely) based on fact - now really that IS horrible. Poor bloody Marie Plessis.
I love "Turandot" firstly for the music, which I think is some of the most dazzling Puccini ever wrote, and secondly for, yes, that's right, the story. It's an allegory, for crying out loud; an allegory of the creative life. For those who aren't opera buffs, the overall line of the story is as follows: Princess Turandot, heir to the throne of China, will only marry the man who can answer her three riddles, and executes anyone who cannot; the Unknown Prince answers them, and commits himself totally to her, risking his life and turning away from those who love him and try to hold him back, even when they have to suffer because of his choice; he sets Turandot a riddle of his own, but after kissing her cannot resist telling her the answer; luckily for him, she decides to spare him because she is overcome by the depth of his love for her, and by her own emotions on being kissed for the first time; instead of announcing the answer to his riddle (his real name, Calaf), she tells the assembled court "Il suo nome é amor", and accepts him as her husband.
I've always seen this as an allegory of total commitment to the Muse, and the risks inherent in this. Calaf is initially repulsed and enraged by what Turandot requires, and what she does to people; by her power and her potency, her casual, emotionless cruelty, and her ability to ensnare and overwhelm. Then he sets eyes on her, and suddenly he knows that this, and only this, can make his life complete. She is the Muse, the power-from-within that will drive him to become what he is capable of being; she is the creative life force of the universe personified. To follow her, you must be blind to all else. But without her, to those who are capable of seeing her in the first place, life is only ever going to be a shadow. Those who are capable of seeing her are princes, potential kings; surely all this is allegorical? The other men in the story only ever see a powerful, destructive woman who they fear and would like to see cut down to size. The princes see something worth giving your life for.
The Unknown Prince forsakes his old, blind, exiled father, and the faithful slave girl who loves him, and rejects their pleas to forget what they say can only hurt them and destroy him. He makes a total commitment, even though it is to something everyone advises him against, and he abides faithfully in this commitment. He sees at first hand what the Muse can do; how much pain and destruction she can cause, how she will turn her back without a flicker of feeling on someone who has given themself to her, like the unfortunate Prince of Persia, and all his beheaded predecessors; and he still makes that same commitment, knowing all the risks. When, momentarily, he is in a position of dominance, he willingly gives it up, because he cannot resist giving himself utterly and in absolute trust to his love. He knows that only his love and his commitment can save him, and so he has to trust a force that has not yet ever shown itself worthy of trust, only of fear. He takes all these incredible risks; he sees his family suffer; he is offered, and refuses, both bribes and threats; and he doesn't give up. Finally he wins Turandot - and his beloved herself says to him "Please, go; you have made me love you - isn't enough to know you have won? - can you not just savour that victory and leave me in my solitude?" - and still, even then, faced with that seductively easy way out, still he doesn't give up.
That's how I see it, anyway. It simply isn't a story about real people making real decisions and happily condemning others to death or to a life of misery. It's about the absoluteness of commitment to your path in life.
And then I go to a production like this Royal Opera one, and discover how this fable can be made into a story about real people. I'm startled, but convinced; it was terrific. As a fusion of theatricality and human-interest, it was spot-on. The singers had been directed to adopt a slightly formalised movement, as if to undermine any possible sense that verismo was the goal. Stylised posture and gestures were tuned to the individual character, and costumes and make-up likewise, but then, within that framework, the performers were allowed natural acting; and, somehow, the characters began to seem far more real than if they had been played completely naturalistically. It was as if one were watching a whole society hooked on maintaining the perfect façade of courtly behaviour, but with their real natural feelings breaking through inescapably. The production looks magnificent, with light gleaming through fretwork window screens, and blood-red banners hanging. The Emperor Altoum is flown in from above on a golden throne, and Turandot makes her first entry carried shoulder high in a litter by masked servants, glacially statue-like and distant. The entire Chinese court wear either full or half-masks most of the time, and only Calaf and his family are allowed the fully human expressiveness of their own bare faces.
But the whole thing would stand or fall on the casting, and in this particular case this was brilliant. The Swedish soprano Irene Theorin was a stunning Turandot, with the capacity both to blow your socks off with "In Questa Reggia" (the operatic equivalent of dancing the Rose Adagio - come on and go straight into one of the most demanding pieces in the repertoire) and to melt into thrilling, floating pianissimi as her reserve gradually breaks down. She also looked good, which I'm afraid does help, given that this is supposed to be a staggeringly beautiful woman - the last Turandot I saw was built like a balloon and could barely manage to sit down at the impact of Calaf's kiss, whereas Ms Theorin swooned to the floor very convincingly. And within the icy façade and the stylised gestures, this was all-too credibly a woman utterly terrified of giving up her freedom from male domination, incredulous at meeting her equal at last.
I didn't really like the Liu at first; rather too effortful of voice, and with a lot of vibrato in between the soaring high notes. But she could act, and, again, this helps. Liu is an immensely sympathetic character but I've never seen quite this mixture of tenderness and steel. The moment when, with the merest flicker of expression, she let us know that she has realised the only way out for her is suicide was wrenching in its simplicity.
I've left the best till last. I had heard of the Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato, but had never seen him in action before. Now I am thinking "Oh my gods, when will I get to see this guy in action again?" I had booked expecting to see José Cura, who goodness knows is worth the trip, but he had gone down with the flu and was unable to sing. Enter Mr Armiliato; for me, a completely new discovery (though clearly not for the rest of the world - he has a lot of big rôles under his belt, but it seems he doesn't sing in the UK much). At first I thought he was holding back slightly; perhaps he hadn't quite got the feel of the House yet. But round about "A me il trionfo, a me l'Amore" (I bow gratefully to a considerably better authority than my own inaccurate ear on the question of which line it was!), he just started to open out and give it everything, and was suddenly riding this beautiful ringing voice out over the orchestra and really sounding like the hero Calaf needs to be. Acts two and three were simply stunning.
He's tall and presentable, and is the best kind of actor, ie subtle, totally natural and inward - no tubthumping, no trick-playing, no ham; and he has a splendid voice. Really gorgeous sound, with all the things I love; strength and colour and feeling, and a lovely bell-like clarity. Not Cura's blackened-bronze colour, but bright and golden, and with rich depths of tone; a hoppy, real-ale gold rather than a crisp lager-y one. And it is a pleasure always to hear someone sing as if they really understand and mean every word. "Nessun Dorma" can so easily be churned out on autopilot these days; but not with this guy. When one adds to the quality of his performance the fact that he was a stand-in, new to the production, with at most three or four days rehearsal; and he has only sung in the house once before... Yet he was totally integrated and committed to the production, and was certainly by miles the best Calaf I've seen. Damn it, I've got a new hero; goodness knows when I'll get another dose of his work, though...


Mario Cavaradossi said...

Hi! There was also me to see this Opera in RHO! I posted this link on youtube: ...I think Fabio is the best Calaf in our days!

Imogen said...

Mario, if you are really a dead ringer for the late, great Franco Corelli, may I offer my congratulations?!

All joking apart, it was a great evening at CG, though, wasn't it?

Imogen said...

Mario - if you're still there - I don't speak Italian beyond tourist and opera-libretto level, but with a mixture of this plus Spanish and courage I have managed to struggle through the review of the ROH "Turandot" on your "Dolci Baci" blog.
I'm bemused that none of the British press seem to have batted an eye on getting a tenor they should have been itching to hear suddenly turning up on their doorstep singing Calaf.
(Well, not literally on the doorstep, though it's a nice thought... I'd be very happy to be serenaded by a man with a voice of that quality!)

dsc-nova said...

Hi! Just wanted to ask--were we at the same opera? Fabio fidgeted, made faces, adjusted his garmets when he was supposed to be in distress, went vacant when he wasn't center of the action, and moved in hurky jerkey moves when he was. He sang downstage to maximize his projection AND he offered perhaps the most overly dramatic, over-the-top Nessun dorma I have ever heard live. His tenor is good and serviceable but totally generic and forgettable.

Sorry, I have heard good things about him but in theater on this nght, I just wasn't that into him. I found him annoying.

Sorry to be so off target with your opinion. To each their own, I guess.

calaf09 said...

Excuse me, dsc-nova, but I was at the same opera !!!
Fabio Armiliato in TURANDOT at ROH was really impressive endeed, totally envolved and delivering a stunning and impressive vocal performance.
I heard he's been called for this performances only one day before and I read in his web site last time he sang this opera it's been almost two years ago in Baden-Baden conducted by Gerghiev and with another incredible success.
I only agree with dsc-nova on the fact that he delivered the most impressive NESSUN DORMA I ever heard live....
For the rest dsc-nova wrote in his message: I don't really want to be polemic at all....but I found words like "annoying, generic and forgettable" for this tenor's performance really unfair, improper and a little bit mean. Sorry.
I don't remember having heard at the end of a performance such a big ovation for a tenor since looooong time at ROH, and this DOES mean something more then our words and opinions on this blog.....

I totally agree with Imogen's post who wrote the same words I'd like to express about Fabio Armiliato's performance at ROH ! Thank you Imogenen and thank to Fabio Armiliato for the wonderful evening!!!

Imogen said...

Well, my dears, horses for courses, as they say - you can't please everyone. A world in which we were all exactly the same and wanted the same things would be pretty boring. After all, Maria Callas was probably the most famous singer of the twentieth century, but many of us don't like her voice. (Go on, lynch me!).

dsc-nova said...

Back again--just to report on the second performance at ROH with Cura as Calaf; what a difference! Like Cura's voice or not, the stage vibrates with electricity when he steps into a scene; sorry Calaf, Mario, and Imogen, but that CANNOT be said about Fabio, who instantly got lost in scenes. There was intelligence and focus in Cura, fidgeting and vacancy in Fabio.

You like FA's voice; good. I certainly can't say a word to change your preference but I stand by my statement that his voice is good in quality but generic in tone. I could no more pick his voice off a CD now than I could before I spent almost three hourse with him at Covent Garden. Generic, undistinguished, bland. Sorry. Just an honest opinion.

The performance I saw FA in was his second performance, so he had time to adapt to the theater and the role. I won't buy that we should give him a lot of leeway because he hasn't been a frequent visitor here, in part because of how he conducted himself on stage. I'm one of those folks who need to be inside the drama and not seduced by a voice,so I watch as well as listen, and FA was NOT convincing in portraying Calaf. He is not a novice to the role so he wasn't trying desperately to think of words when he staring with vacant eyes during those periods when others were front and center; he simply went inert.

Example: first act, the recognition scene: FA stolss along the back of the stage, jerks to attention, and from the back of the stage, staring at the back of the prone figure of a man lying on the ground a fair distance from him, he recognizes him instantly. Compare that to Cura, who sees a man who has fallen and rushes to help,turns him over, and THEN recongizes him. A world of difference, but in that world you can see the difference between a singer who thinks that is all he needs to do and a singing actor who is thinking and experiencing.

Second example: the death of Liu: FA stood with his guards and adjusted his red coat while Liu died, then waited until she was on the ground and the guards let him move before he moves to her side. Cura breaks free of the guards once he realizes her intent and manages to get to her in time to catch her as she sinks. Different sensibilities but my what a difference it made in understanding the characters.

Also, FA spent much of the night stroking his chin and making funning faces, tugging on his costume and generally being completely removed from the action.

And, sorry again, but FA's Nessun dorma was the most self-indulgent and over-wrought rendition I have heard live. The folks I attend with agreed,barely refraining from laughing aloud and she strained to make it ever more emotional. Glad you liked it, but it was a stand and sing effort for FA and not integrated at all into the performance or the character.

Yes, FA might be an excellent concert feature but in an opera where it is expected that he both sing and act, I have to give him weak marks. Good,dependable GENERIC voice,capable of filling in for the first line but not quite able to take his place among the best of the best.

Again, glad you liked him and as I said it is just different strokes for different folks. I want meat on the plate, not just a pretty dish. FA did not give me that meat, but it appears he did for you. If you find these sentiments mean, then I am sorry. Sometimes alternative truth hurts, though I can't imagine why comments about FA's performance would be taken so personally by you.

Oh, BTW, the applause he received on Wednesday evening was PALE compared to the ovation that swept the audience on Saturday. Sorry.

tika_867 said...

Tika from the US here.

I am just back home after seeing Fabio Armiliato on Wednesday and Jose Cura on Saturday. I have to say that even though I thought Armiliato was adequate in the role, his performance wasn't nearly as strong as I expected and paled in comparison to Cura's. I guess, if we were voting, I'd have to come down on DSC's side. Does that make me mean, too?

IMHO Armiliato had the notes and he used them well and for a short term substitute he was fine. But really, I have no memory of his voice right now, a couple of days after the performance. Yes, the voice handled the notes all right but you really do need more than that for greatness. And I don't think he has the stage presence to sell out a theater. That's just my opinion, of course.

Oh, two more things about his voice: he was FREQUENTLY drowned out by the orchestra and he occasionally broke the vocal line with unnecessary breaths. THat's not so much opinion as fact.

Now, I LOVE LOVE LOVE Turandot. I have traveled around the world for performances of it. It is one of my most favorite operas. Did I mention I loved it? So, knowing that, can you imagine I FELL ASLEEP during Wednesday's performance, Armiliato was that weak? I kicked myself for it, but I lost a lot of Act I and struggled with the other two acts. The gentleman next to me slept through the final two acts, and we were sitting right on top of the percussion! I could not believe it!

You mentioned applause: I've been to ROH when there has been a whole lot more applause for a performance than on Wednesday night. We were here in September and that was true. We were here Saturday for the second performance of Turandot and that was true. It that is your gauge,sorry, the applause wasn't that great for Armiliato.

So, we can all agree to disagree but from my perspective, Armiliato is second rank, and that's how I will think of him.

Best from the US, where we celebrate a brand new president on Tuesday! Hurrah!


Imogen said...

Dsc-nova, I'm puzzled that you say I took your comments personally - I didn't. I have looked back at my earlier response trying to see what you could have interpreted in that way, and I can't see it. Honestly: Horses for courses - we can't all like the same things, and the world would be boring if we did. I'm sorry to disappoint you by not wailing protests at your critique, but I'm not that bothered.
You say
"Sometimes alternative truth hurts, though I can't imagine why comments about FA's performance would be taken so personally by you."
This is really a mystifying thing to read; who's getting hurt? No-one. We all have different tastes, and there is nothing wrong with that, and no need for anyone to get hot behind the ears...
And Tika - greetings to the US on this very happy day.

dsc-nova said...

DSC back...

Imogen, sorry I wasn't clearer. I thought Calaf took the initial comments personally and should have specified that comment was focused on only one of the posters. You have been most balanced in your commentary.

I certainly agree that any two individuals sitting side by side at an opera can walk out with vastly different impressions on the performance. Obviously, that happened Wednesday evening. Again, I will merely state that I don't go to opera solely for the singing but for the entire experience, which includes voice, acting, and interaction. FA had a good, clean voice with all the prerequisite notes; for me, that voice filled the void but nothing else and on both the acting and interaction he failed completely.

But I accept that some want the voice only and can disregard the rest. If that is the standard, FA had the notes in his voice and obviously, as a native born Italian, was able to offer the words appropriately.

Take care.

Imogen said...

Enough already...