Turandot – Berio’s Completion

Turandot – Overture and March
Tabuh-tabuhan – toccata for orchestra and two pianos
Symphonic Metamorphoses after Themes by Carlo Maria von Weber
Puccini, completed Berio
Turandot – Act 3 [UK premiere]

Turandot – Eva Urbanová
Calaf – Dennis O’Neill
Liù – Amanda Roocroft
Timur – Iain Paterson
Ping – Christopher Purves
Pang – Christopher Gillett
Pong – Anthony Mee

Philharmonia Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 March, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

What better to open a Turandot-centred concert than the Overture and March from Weber’s 1809 incidental music to Carlo Gozzi’s drama? Sprucely played, if a little deadpan – the iconoclastic humour proving elusive here – it set the scene for the return of the inimitable pentatonic theme in the Turandot Scherzo of Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis. There’s a didactic element to this composer that prevents the effortless showpiece intended, but Leonard Slatkin had the measure of its Teutonic antics – not least the orchestral ’fly-past’ of the concluding March. (A pity that Busoni’s wonderfully imaginative incidental music for Turandot was unable to be played, on account of excerpts having been included in the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s Barbican concert earlier this month!)

In between, a rare outing for Colin McPhee’s exhilarating synthesis of Balinese rhythmic processes and European formal sophistication and orchestral virtuosity. Uncanny the way that Tabuh-tabuhan (1936) anticipates the soundworld of American minimalism (compare the opening of its Ostinatos movement with that of Steve Reich’s Variations), and confirms – as, to a more profound degree, does Stravinsky’s Les noces – the vacuity of most latter-day attempts at cultural ’fusion’. Slatkin was clearly in tune with the work’s Pacific Rim ethos, while not underplaying the poeticism of its central Nocturne, or the very ’classical’ culmination of the Finale. Incisive playing from John Alley and Elizabeth Burley in the important concertante piano parts helped make the performance a highlight of the BBC Symphony’s season thus far.

As, in offering a revelatory new perspective on a seminal early 20th-century opera, was Luciano Berio’s realisation of Act Three of Puccini’s Turandot – a concert performance of which followed. The most immediately striking things about this completion are its subtlety and – at least in terms of duration – modesty. Berio has trimmed down the Adami/Simoni libretto, using text for which Puccini provided concrete musical ideas. This means that only the final third of the act (16 out of the 42 minutes in the present performance) has been ’Berio-ized’ – and, though the textures and orchestration exhibit something of the dense translucency of Berio’s own orchestral writing, the harmonic writing pushes against but never breaks the boundaries within which Puccini was working in this last and stylistically most varied of his operas.

The vexing question of how to humanise Turandot as a result of her showdown with Calaf occupied Puccini to the last. Berio does not so much solve as transcend the problem. The ravishing orchestral interlude which follows ’the kiss’ unobtrusively draws attention away from the protagonists as people and emphasises the union of their characters – each contributing what the other has lacked when apart. This makes possible the calm, equivocal ending as Berio hears it: Turandot and Calaf at one in a culture founded on brutality and driven by antagonism. It’s as telling a metaphor for Puccini’s ultimate love match as it is for the role of the individuals who constitute the ’society’ around them. Lacking the outward theatricality of Franco Alfano’s familiar completion, Berio is much truer to the musical and dramatic implications that Puccini had found himself bound to follow.

The cast was a strong one. Eva Urbanová was regally imperious as the ’ice queen’, with Dennis O’Neill suitably ardent as Calaf – powerfully sustaining the close of ’Nessun dorma’ against the might of the onstage orchestra. The undoubted highlight, however, was Amanda Roocroft’s searching portrayal of Liù – the most selfless of Puccini’s heroines and accorded his most heartfelt music. Iain Paterson captured the disillusioned tone of Timur, and Messrs Purves, Gillett and Mee made a spirited Ping, Pang and Pong. Slatkin directed with keen attention to the complex emotional ebb and flow – some rough singing from the Philharmonia Chorus offset by the sonorous playing of the BBCSO.

Of course, the true test of such a realisation has to be a staging of the complete opera. So what about it Covent Garden and Antonio Pappano? Sensitively produced, Turandot as a work looking as much to the future as the past may presently be vindicated.

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