Bunkamura Orchard Hall
04/14/1999 - et 15, 16, 17 April 1999
Giacomo Puccini : Turandot
Shimohara Chieko (Turandot), Suzuki Kanichi (Altoum), Yamaguchi Toshihiko (Timur), Zhao Deng Feng (Calaf), Sue Chen Panariello (Liu), Kamie Homei (Ping), Matsuura Ken (Pang), Makikawa Shuichi (Pong), Kubo Kazunori (Mandarin)
Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, Tokyo Opera Singers, Tokyo FM Boys Choir, Inoue Michiyoshi (conductor), Teshigawara Saburo (direction, set design, costumes and lighting),
Bunkamura Opera Theatre production
An opulent new production of Turandot was presented by Tokyu Bunkamura Inc (cultural arm of one of Japan's leading transportation, hotel, and department store companies) at Bunkamura Orchard Hall on April 14th. This production is going to the Edinburgh Festival where it will be seen on August 16, 18, 20, 22 with the same cast as the Tokyo premiere.
Teshigawara's Turandot is danced. The choreographer-director-designer has set out to give expression to the powerful physical energy that pulsates through the music of the opera - in movement. And his Turandot has some of the most exciting action to be seen anywhere on the operatic stage.
The crowd scenes are electric. I have never seen a chorus move so well on stage. Teshigawara has succeeded in merging the chorus with his professional dancers, so that we are not conscious of any difference between them. The only problem being that the main scenes with the principal singers appear static by comparison.
The stage used in Tokyo is relatively small (with a very small backstage area) so no Zeffirellian extravaganzas are possible there, nor (thankfully) anything like last year's literal 'opera on original site' tourist production in Beijing. Teshigawara's Peking is a fantasy world with Asian and western elements fused together. It is primitive, ritualistic, grotesque, comic - and sometimes kitsch - a context is which the violence of the opera makes an anthropological kind of sense. A context in which even an outbreak of cannibalism wouldn't surprise.
The opera begins on a dark stage with a black head-scarved crowd revolving around a puppet-like Mandarin making mechanical gestures. The executioner, his assistants and the Prince of Persia dance. The executioner is a tall figure, grotesquely contorting his belly buto-style, waving two long curved swords. At the end of the act, when Calaf makes his challenge, prisoners wearing huge cangues form geometric patterns on the stage.
Act Two begins with the three ministers singing under a large moon-shaped panel on which are projected large blurred moving images of a girl, a rose, a repeatedly decapitated death mask and eventually scenes from modern life including trains (in tribute to Tokyu?), boats and aircraft etc. Possibly the least successful part of the production. But this is followed by a high kitsch court scene. The set is dominated by a deep blue circular panel with a crescent moon, set in gold and surrounded by four smaller round panels containing women in semi-erotic poses. The Emperor appeared in white, suspended in mid air - half pope, half man in the moon.
Act Three starts again on a black stage embellished with the skeleton of a horse in one corner and a row of severed heads in another, and a lot of writhing bodies. The ministers appear all in red - hair, faces and clothes. Turandot is also dressed in red, looking like a Heian princess. For the finale the Emperor is at last lowered to earth and plays charmingly with a group of dancing children. It ended with the three figures together - the Emperor in white, Turandot in red and Calaf in black - a stunning final image.
Turandot may be the right role for the Japanese dramatic soprano Shimohara, but it doesn't necessarily follow that she is the right singer for this production. Having sung Abigaille, Lady Macbeth, Aida, Santuzza, and Tosca, mainly with the Fujiwara Opera, Turandot was a logical next step. However, as in her previous roles, there is a problem with her phrasing and apparent lack of interest in the text. She began well with 'In questa Reggia' but from then as her diction deteriorated and she also became more and more squally, blustering her way through the role.
In contrast the Calaf, Zhao Deng Feng started weakly but improved gradually throughout the evening. He is a fine singer with an attractive timbre to the voice and good diction. He gave the impression of being very close to drying up at times, but somehow managed to squeeze out a little more power than seemed possible at each climactic moment. He is a tall and impressive figure on stage and no doubt would be an excellent singer in a lighter role.
The Beijing singing actress Chen Sue is ideal casting for Liu, superb in her death scene, making it the real high point of the drama. If she can regain a little of the breadth of tone that marked her sensational Butterfly in Bunkamura's previous opera production, she will doubtless have a big success in Edinburgh.
Kamie (Ping), Matsuura (Pang) and Makikawa (a transvestite Grand Cook, Pong) lacked the lightness of touch, the humour and the lyricism necessary for the three ministers. But this is not just a musical problem, but one that involves the production itself.
The conductor was also rather long on blood and thunder, short on tenderness and lyricism. Not doubt an excellent ballet conductor, Inoue exhibited terrific rhythmic vitality, but he was often too loud for his singers.
The audience expressed their enthusiasm at the curtain calls, however a small group booed Teshigawara vociferously the moment he stepped on stage. Whether this was a organized protest or not was unclear. The rest of the audience applauded strongly but Teshigawara was visibly shaken.
It should be noted that the Japanese names were given surname first (Japanese style) in the Bunkamura programme, rather than in the American style of reversing the names. Thus Shimohara Chieko rather than Chieko Shimohara. However the Edinburgh programme gives the name in the other way, so Turandot will be sung by Chieko Shimohara . . .