Teatro Real 2022-23 Review: Turandot
Teatro Real’s Revival of ‘Turandot’ Gets Mixed Reception with Standout Performances from Anna Pirozzi, Michael Fabiano, and Miren Urbieta-Vega.By Mauricio Villa
Credit: Teatro Real
Teatro Real closes the 2022-23 season with 17 performances of Puccini’s “Turandot.” It is a revival of their own Robert Wilson production, which premiered at Teatro Real in 2018, featuring three different casts.
The opera will be screened live in several squares all over Spain, will be shown on RTVE (The main Spanish Tv channel), and will be live streamed ( with a 90-minute delay) and later be available on the Teatro Real’s platform: Myoperaplayer.
Overbearing Orchestra & Stagnant Staging
The production was revival intact (only the costumes of Ping, Pang, and Pong have been changed), and OperaWire already reviewed this production in 2018 when it opened. So, there was nothing new: strong and beautiful photographic moments, but a static staging where the characters don’t interact with each other, walk like Egyptians in false profiles, and have all the movements strictly choreographed in an abstract code that only Wilson understands.
To make matters worse, it was very noticeable that the singers were not comfortable with the demands of the staging at all, as they have to stay on the stage for a long time and always sing facing the front, with no facial expression, no reactions, no movements…. just playing as if they were statues. I reaffirm myself: Wilson’s theatrical language does not sustain a two-hour opera. The action turns out to be slow, tedious, and boring, and you can’t follow the plot at all.
Nicola Luisotti came back to the podium after having conducted the 2018 run of performances. He plays the orchestra extremely loud, and therefore most singers were covered by the dense orchestration, but also, even the chorus could not be heard at all in moments, such as at the end of their first long intervention in “Turandot! Ah!” where the whole chorus is singing fortissimo, and the soprano section is holding a high C sharp (which is a high ringing note). There were 82 singers in the choir. Well, that final sustained chord of the chorus could not be heard as the orchestra was playing with Luisotti’s idea of how a fortississimo should sound. And this happened throughout the whole performance. Only singers with big voices and strong projection (like Anna Pirozzi, Michael Fabiano, or Miren Urbieta-Vega) carried over the orchestra, although they even sounded distant at times. The rest of the cast’s voices disappeared completely.
What’s the point of conducting an opera if you can’t hear the singers? There should be a balance between the voices and the music. Although it is true that Luisotti creates big bombastic climatic moments, all the chromatism, musical colors, and Puccini’s exotic Oriental sound were clearly presented and strongly marked.
A Tale of Three Casts: Singers Struggle Amid Wilson’s Demands & Luisotti’s Orchestra
All the singers of the three casts were truly committed to the staging, solving the tremendous difficulties that Wilson demands, which include stillness, no facial expression, fixed statue-like position and singing to the front, not interacting with any of the other characters; even when some positions could compromise their singing. Every single one of them dealt with the difficulties in complying with Wilson’s concept.
Italian soprano, Anna Pirozzi, was an astonishing Turandot. Her dark, powerful low and middle register, and her thunderous high notes (her volume increases as she rises into her high register), made her ideal for this role. Her voice is completely even and balanced throughout all her registers, making the impossibly high and difficult intervals of this score effortless and natural. It is very difficult in the line: ”quel grido,” from central C sharp to high B natural, or in “Straniero, ascolta” phrasing in high A naturals and B flat, not to sound strident or screamy. Pirozzi’s singing was aggressive and menacing but beautiful at the same time. Also, her two high Cs sung along with the chorus and orchestra in forte were clearly heard, something not too many sopranos achieve. But she can sing mezza voce, legato, and pianissimo, as she did in: “Principessa Lou-Ling.” She is definitely one of the best Turandots today.
Ewa Płonka sang Turandot in Cast B. She has an immaculate singing technique; her sound is round and warm, her vibrato is natural, and her high notes are bright. However, she lacked the aggressiveness needed for this role; somehow, her voice sounded too light and lyrical for such a dramatic role. Her interpretation of “In questa reggia!” was more emotional than threatening, and her ringing high notes lacked power. In fact, the orchestra and chorus hid her voice in forte during her two ascensions to high C after the riddle scene. And in this case, it was not only because of Luisotti’s tendency to favor the orchestra sound over the voices. Her entrance aria, “In questa reggia,” the “three riddles” scene, and the final duet has light orchestration, so her voice is exposed. This role requires not only a dramatic, big voice to be heard over dense orchestration but also the vocal characterization of the cruel and tyrannical princess. She concluded her performance with a beautiful and bright high B flat in “Il suo nome è amor.” Płonka is a great singer; I just think her voice is not ideal for this role right now.
Spanish soprano Saioa Hernandez, in Cast C, also portrayed Turandot. She is gaining significant international attention, especially after she opened one season at La Scala (the first Spanish singer to do so). She possesses a lyrico spinto instrument with a dark timbre and a fast, marked vibrato, but the voice is not even; her sound opens, and the vibrato increases when she ascends to high notes. Therefore, her voice sounds like two completely different ones. The sound is seemingly big when singing on her own and with light orchestration, but it is completely hidden by the orchestra and chorus in ensembles, proving that volume is not the same as projection. Her voice usually sounds strident in the higher range because of her fast, marked vibrato and some difficult interval jumps sounded screamy.
Spanish tenor Jorge de Leon sang Calaf in Cast A. His strong, dark, powerful voice showed signs of decline or fatigue. His central and low register sounded controlled and secure, but from the passaggio upwards (from high G above the staff), the vibrato slows, which is unnatural, and he has lost his astonishing projection in the higher register that sounded guttural and small. The high notes were secure, and he held extremely long B flats, which sounded powerless and small. And this role has a lot of B flats. The problem is that most of the time, the tenor is singing a high note; the orchestra is forte, and De Leon cannot carry over the extremely loud orchestra under Luisotti’s baton. His high C in “In questa reggia” was completely overpowered by Pirozzi’s thunderous high C, but he emitted a secure high C in “ardente” after the “three riddles” scene. He sang a beautiful “Nessun Dorma,” singing the line “sulla tua bocca lo dirò” in a single breath and holding the last B natural and A natural for long, although the notes sounded distant and small, lacking all the heroism that this moment demands.
International opera star, Michael Fabiano, had enormous success as Calaf. His pure, natural emission and powerful, potent voice make him ideal for this role. His voice sounds powerful, dark, and spinto; he does not need to manufacture the sound or push the voice to be heard. From his opening line, “Padre, mio padre…,” with a high B flat and the orchestra in forte (as usual in this production), you could tell he was going to excel in this role. He had no problem with the several B flats of this role, sang an impossibly loud high C on “In questa reggia” (his voice was above the high C of the soprano, something completely unusual), and a secure B natural in “vincero” to culminate the famous aria: “Nessun Dorma.” His voice sounds heroic and dramatic per se, but he can sing legato and sweet like in “Non piangere Liu” and sing hair-raising diminuendos like in “moriro….” He was warmly received at the curtain call.
Martin Muehle sang Calaf in Cast C. He was a capable Calaf with secure, albeit small, high notes and a strong middle register. His voice has a bright quality and sounds light, giving the impression that he is over-darkening the sound to make it seem more dramatic. But this only works in the middle range. His high notes lacked power and projection and were mostly hidden by the orchestra’s sound. One difficulty of this role is that most of the high notes are written with the orchestra in forte, so it really demands a powerful, projected voice. He sang with impeccable Italian diction and long legato lines.
Salome Jicia sang Liù in Cast A. She has a lyrical voice with modest volume, but Liu’s aria and most of her interventions have light orchestration. (She was only inaudible in her first line, “Il mio Vecchio è caduto!” because the choir and orchestra were playing in forte.) She has a marked vibrato that intensifies in the higher register, turning her timbre unstable. She sang with beautiful, long legato lines in her aria, “Signore ascolta,” which she crowned with an incredible crescendo/diminuendo in the final high B flat. Her voice was completely hidden by the soloist, chorus, and orchestra during the final ensemble of Act one, “Non piangere Liu.” The interpretation of her second aria in Act three, “Tu che del gel sei cinta,” was dramatic and moving, although the voice lacked the vocal weight that this moment requires. I think that the soprano artificially darkens the timbre to sound more lyrical than her voice truly is.
Spanish soprano, Ruth Iniesta, sang Liù in Cast B. She has a lirico-leggera voice with a marked, unpleasant vibrato, which increases when she executes a diminuendo or sings pianissimi, like in the B flats of “mia hai sorriso” or “Ah! Pieta.” However, this vibrato makes her sound unstable even though she could hold the high notes for a long time. Because of her type of voice, her volume is modest, and the projection is poor, so it was only in her arias that her voice was heard clearly. During ensembles or in her opening line, “il mio Vecchio è caduto!” the voice disappeared completely. Her two arias sounded lyrical and sweet, but she lacked strength and drama, especially in her short confrontation with Turandot in Act three.
Miren Urbieta-Vega was quite a revelation as Liù. She possesses a truly lyrical voice with a dark, warm timbre, a covered, round sound that is even throughout her register, and an incredible voice projection. She was, by far, the only voice in Cast C, which was clearly heard when singing in ensembles, as it happened in “Non piangere Liu,” where her voice was strongly resonant. Her voice rings in your ears as if she were singing right next to you. She delivered the two pianissimo high B flats that the score demands in “mia hai sorriso” and “Ah! Pieta” with a crystalline, well-supported sound. Her vocal interpretation was very moving and dramatic and full of pathos in her suicide scene.
Pong, Pang, and Ping
Mikeldi Atxalandabaso, Moises Marin, and Germán Olvera were brilliant as Pong, Pang, and Ping, respectively. Not only did their voices blend perfectly together, were brilliantly projected, and were musically accurate, but they also met Wilson’s extreme demands. While all the other characters of the opera are mostly still and stiff, the trio is moving constantly with no rest when they are on stage. They have to jump every time they walk, and they move around a lot, so they jump, turn, and run the whole time while singing in an uncomfortable high tessitura.
They showed no signs of tiredness or lack of air in their singing. The few moments they stand still, they have to keep moving their heads constantly, like those figurine toys which have the head inserted in a string, causing the head to keep tilting all the time. Their work is truly remarkable, and the audience recognized it, as they always received a strong ovation at the curtain call.
The three basses, Adam Palka, Liang Lì, and Fernando Radó, portrayed the short role of Timur, which is delegated to a few spare lines, but which has one of the most beautiful pages Puccini wrote for this kind of voice, which is the lament after Liu’s dead. The three singers were perfectly cast for this role, adequate in style and with strong voices which could sing mezza voce in the last scene.
A revival of Bob Wilson’s production of “Turandot” will be delightful for the admirers of this director but may cause monotony, slowness, and tedium for most of the audience. Three casts covered the 17 performances. However, the ideal cast with these singers would be Anna Pirozzi, Michael Fabiano, and Miren Urbieta-Vega as Turandot, Calaf, and Liu, respectively.