Robert Wilson's Turandot at The Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre

Robert Wilson

Tomas Kontakevics

When an artist dies in the throes of creation, his or her death inevitably becomes part of the last, unfinished work. This is true the more so when the death, and hence the incompleteness of the work, is unpardoned, and another artist is either chosen or chooses to finish what the original creator had begun. Since any attempt at emulating genius is bound to end in pastiche, the sudden shift of sensibility makes the death of the genius into a major event within the world of the work itself. Giacomo Puccini met just such a fate in his Turandot, an opera recently reimagined by Robert Wilson, the American avant-garde regisseur extraordinaire, in a co-production between the opera houses of Lithuania, Spain, Canada, and the US. Unlike most stagings of the opera, Wilson's doesn't pass over the demise of its composer for the sake of telling the habitual story, but rather pays its singular respects to the moment he locked his last note into a stave.

Turandot, Act I, Teatro Real Madrid, 2018. Yolanda Auyanet (Liù), Andrea Mastroni (Timur), Gregory Kunde (Calaf), Chorus, Antonio Carbonero & Álex Pastor (The Executioner), David Vento (The Prince of Persia), Irene Theorin (Turandot). Photo: © Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Writing on 20 November 1920, Puccini confessed to his librettist Giuseppe Adami: “without fever there is no creation; because emotional art is a kind of illness, an exceptional state of mind, over-excitation of every fibre and every atom.” This fever reached its highest musical pitch during the composition of Turandot before being cut short by the onset of a different kind of malady. What at  first felt like a mere recurrent cough turned out to be cancer, and on 29 November 1924, Puccini died of heart failure at a radiology clinic in Brussels. By that point, he was done composing and orchestrating everything up until the middle of the third, and last, act of the opera.

The story for Turandot reached Puccini through the window of a train about to leave Milan, when his librettist Renato Simoni passed Puccini Schiller's adaptation of the 18th-century playwright Carlo Gozzi's Turandot. The composer read it on his journey and sent an inspired letter to Simoni a few days later, pronouncing that in order to adapt it they would need to “simplify it”. Giuseppe Adami joined Simoni, and together they devoted themselves, with great élan at first, to pursuing what was soon revealed to be Puccini's very fickle and wavering vision into reality.

Turandot, Act I, Teatro Real Madrid, 2018. 
Andrea Mastroni (Timur), Joan Martín Royo (Ping), Vicenç Esteve (Pang), Gregory Kunde (Calaf), Juan Antonio Sanabria (Pong), Yolanda Auyanet (Liù). Photo: © Javier del Real | Teatro Real

What compelled Puccini's interest about Turandot was the eponymous princess, the transformation of an icy heart into a burning seat of love. The opera is set in Peking, where noble suitors from far-flung countries travel to win the hand of the beguiling Turandot, who will only marry the contender able to solve her three riddles, while those who fail are executed in front of the imperial palace. Amidst the crowd at one of these executions, the Prince of Tartary, Calaf, reunites with his father, the deposed king of Tartary, Timur, and his slave-girl, Liù. Upon catching a glimpse of Turandot, Calaf falls madly in love, and accepts the challenge of the three riddles, against the pleas and persuasions of his companions. At the trial, he answers all three of the riddles correctly, to the great consternation of the princess. Seeing her acute distress, he offers her a challenge in turn: if she is able to find out his name before sunrise, he dies, and if not, she will be his. Turandot accepts, threatening doom to everyone in Peking if they fail to discover the Prince's name for her. Timur and Liù, having been seen with Calaf, are arrested and tortured. Liù takes the whole burden on herself and commits suicide after confessing her love for Calaf. The sight of such self-sacrifice wreaks a  change in Turandot and, after Calaf himself tells her his name, thus putting his fate into her hands, she proclaims that the name is “love”, as the sun mounts the heavens.

Turandot, Act III, Teatro Real Madrid, 2018. Gregory Kunde (Calaf). Photo: © Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Puccini's death comes slightly after Liù's; his presence dissolves into mere leitmotifs once the mourning for her ceases. He had left only a few jottings for the ending, and a search for a composer who would expand on those jottings ensued, with the hopes alighting, after some indecision, on one named Franco Alfano. The final love duet, the denouement that Puccini had anxiously postponed working on, now weighed on Alfano's conscience, and he dove into it with an overwhelming extravagance that the scene seemed, to him, to demand. The result is far from Puccini. Even in dramatic terms the finale has its inconsistencies, like the too sudden leap from mourning to courting, which Puccini might have resolved by demanding more revisions of his librettists. Indeed, the finale was not included in the premier of Turandot, during which the conductor, Arturo Toscanini, lowered his hands and informed the audience (accounts vary as to his exact words) that the opera ends here because the maestro died here. But in the course of later performances, Alfano's bit was incorporated and established as a good enough ending to an overall formidable piece of opera.

Turandot, Act III, Teatro Real Madrid, 2018. Yolanda Auyanet (Liù), Andrea Mastroni (Timur), Chorus. Photo: © Javier del Real | Teatro Real

The manner in which Wilson has approached Turandot would come as no surprise to audiences familiar with his work. And yet the extent and range of Wilson's output has created an interminable continuum. His career is as well a development of an artist as of an aesthetic movement, for theatre is, after all, a collaborative art. From early “silent operas” such as Deafman Glance to his cosmological opus Einstein on the Beach and now Turandot, the evolution is so subtle and meticulous that a person well versed in his oeuvre need only focus on a detail to see in it the stirrings of its predecessors. Yet the metaphor of natural selection may not be too apt. For all of Wilson's productions defy nature and realism. They belong to the dreams of the great apostles of aestheticism, favouring form above substance.

Wilson proves true Emily Dickinson's claim that the “Best Witchcraft is Geometry”. Turandot abounds in straight lines. At one point, black pillars of different width and size start crossing the stage back and forth, stealing and releasing characters; at another, a thin, strip-lighted platform slides out from the right wing, displaying Turandot in all her red majesty above the heads of the gathered multitude. Because the stage is nearly always populated by a large number of people, no scene is quite able to achieve the immaculate symmetry that Wilson's more minimalistic works attain by way of props. The keen appetite for perfection is satisfied instead by the lighting and ordering of the crowds, be it in the middle or back-ground, often cloaked in shadow to make them melt into the backdrop. The choir is as much part of the landscape as the misty horizon-line that moves and contracts throughout the performance. 

Turandot, Act III, Teatro Real Madrid, 2018. 
Irene Theorin (Turandot). Photo: © Javier del Real | Teatro Real

The obsession with composition doesn't mean, however, that Wilson turns the opera into a mere sequence of images. Movement, indeed, is the primary joy of some scenes. It is profoundly endearing, for example, to watch the three puckish court ministers, Ping, Pang, and Pong, when they revolve dreamily at the centre of the stage whilst voicing ideas for Calaf's potential funeral. Or when, each of them graced with a particular kind of Tourette-like tic, they stand fluttering and trembling in the corners of outright tragic scenes. The main dramatis personae have their own, if less distinct, gestures and ways of moving and standing on the stage. But what distinguishes them from the three ministers is the relatively slow pace and sparsity of motion.

As Wilson himself remarked in a Q&A prior to the premiere in Vilnius, this is a collaboration between him and Puccini. Even so, it is far from what Puccini understood as collaboration. For him it was the marriage of co-dependent elements: the visual and the musical. For Wilson it is the divorce of the two. Intense and swift chords are translated into mostly gentle and slow gestures. Where Puccini hurried against his death fast approaching, Wilson lingers and admires the music. Turandot's movements during her arias are restricted to the careful and graceful lifting of her black-gloved hands or the handling of a cleaver, and those of the others are hardly more remarkable. For a composition with such a chromatic tonal range, the mise-en-scène provides little when it comes to colour. This lack, however, is in the service of narrative, but not the time-hallowed narrative. A fresh Wilson variation.

Turandot, Act III, Teatro Real Madrid, 2018. Juan Antonio Sanabria (Pong), Joan Martín Royo (Ping), Vicenç Esteve (Pang), Roberto Aronica (Calaf), Dancers. Photo: © Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Once the fateful moment of Puccini's death comes along, what one hears and sees begins to drift farther apart. As Alfano's fanfaronade stumbles across the air and Calaf swells the flame in Turandot's breast, Turandot's face remains turned towards the audience, as all the other faces were for most of the performance. And when the princess's heart is finally melting, Calaf does not approach to kiss or even touch her, as he lets it be known to have done, but is absorbed into the dark, indiscriminate shadow of the crowd. Turandot is thus left to stand alone, centre-stage, and proclaim her transformation into a passionate being. The backdrop is now, like her dress, also glowing incarnadine, and upon the words “love is the light in our world” sung by the choir, a vertical strip-light descends to just above the princess's head.

Turandot, Act III, Teatro Real Madrid, 2018 Irene Theorin (Turandot), Gregory Kunde (Calaf). Photo: © Javier del Real | Teatro Real

In this final duet, which visually becomes a solo, Turandot describes love with the same metaphors with which Puccini explained creativity. It is a “fever”, an “illness”. One wonders if Puccini would have taken to Wilson's production of his opera, which seems likely, and whether he would have agreed with the way he deviated from the accepted finale, which seems even more likely, if one has read his letters. Of course, Wilson didn't rewrite Puccini; all he did was honour what the composer had left unexpressed. 

Since Turandot is only Wilson's second production in collaboration with the Lithuanian National  Opera and Ballet Theatre (the first was Bach's Johanesspassion in 2007), most of the audience took their seats with little expectations on the night of the premiere. Looking along the rows of faces in the course of the performance, one read in them either an amused or a bemused kind of wonderment. This same feeling would pervade the crowds as they drifted out after what seemed a truly heart-felt ovation, which was meant as much for Wilson as it was for the conductor, Modestas Pitrėnas, the chorus master, Česlovas Radžiūnas, and the three singers – Sandra Janušaite, Kristian Benedikt, and Eugenia Dushina. But even if the noise of bustling reality swiftly drowned out all memory of music, the final image still continued to hover in front of many eyes – the figure of Turandot, incandescent with a passion wholly her own.

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