Puccini - Turandot

Hungarian State Opera - Erkel Theatre, Budapest, Saturday January 17 2015 

Conductor: Gergely Kesselyák. Turandot: Szilvia Rálik. Altoum: István Róka. Timur: Kolos Kováts. Calaf: Atilla Kiss B. Liu: Gabriella Létay Kiss. Ping: Zoltán Kelemen. Pang: István Horváth. Pong: NC. Mandarin: Sándor Egri.

Per capita GDP in the US is about $53,000; in France, it's around $44,000; in Hungary, it's $13,000. Yet the Hungarian State Opera somehow manages to maintain two houses – its magnificent, gilded, neo-renaissance main one and the more modern (and larger) Erkel Theatre – offering a season of fully-staged operas with orchestra, chorus and, in many cases, soloists of international standard. The most expensive seats at the Erkel cost the equivalent of 12 euros (at the main house, that is doubled). The productions may be more or less sophisticated, but clearly this is a company that works hard to give its patrons the best it can with the funds available.

A real critic, paid to be impartially objective, may not take such things into account. But as my (French) neighbour put it on Saturday, when the Paris Opera, with its annual subsidy of 100 million euros, is capable of putting on a Seraglio with singers barely audible even at Garnier, and so dire to watch that despite the 190-euro ticket price we escaped at the first opportunity, in Budapest you're inclined to be indulgent.

Still, as Calaf, Atilla Kiss B. was more rough than ready. His voice was so uneven in the first act you sometimes weren't quite sure what he was doing: singing, moaning, groaning or what. It oddly brought to my mind one of those battered jalopies you sometimes see that have been patched up with doors, bonnet and boot lid of different colours. His “Sia benedetta!” was worrying: a bizarre, strangled sort of sound, so it was probably just as well that in the third and highest “Gli enigmi sono tre” he was covered by the soprano. Yet he somehow recovered for “Nessun Dorma”, scooping up into the higher notes from well below, and scored a huge hit with the local fans, the conductor having helped, much to my surprise, by choosing what you might call the “concert ending” of the aria, coming to a (thunderous) full stop that shamelessly called for applause.

Erkel Theatre
Gabriella Létay Kiss sang fairly loudly throughout, with quite a hard sound, so I missed some of the potential subtleties of the part. But remember, I'm contrasting this production favourably with one in Paris where we could barely hear the singers at all. 

Szilvia Rálik, when singing softly, i.e. after she'd gone completely to pieces (as Anna Russell said of Brünnhilde, for those who don't get the quote) in Alfano's ghastly final scenes, had a very beautiful voice with an interesting timbre. Not at all the Wagnerian kind of voice sometimes cast as Turandot. I suppose we can say she's a lirico-spinto, as before that, much of the time she was pushed to her absolute limit – but not beyond it. She can undeniably sing the part, indeed is singing it eight times this month. The question is whether she should. It would be a shame to harm such a fine instrument. (I hope to hear her later this year as Jenufa, which should be more comfortable for her.)

The chorus, sometimes on stage and sometimes dispersed around the house, sang very well (better than they acted). The orchestra too, only conductor Gergely Kesselyák tended to bash his way through the score, giving us real thrills in the loud bits that were meant to be such (the brass, by the way, were in a raised stage-side box and as such especially audible), but very little of the poetry or mystery that should also, quite often, be there.

The single set was made of lightweight, fretted structures in red and gold lacquer, with openwork staircases that could be moved about as required and roofed pavilions that could be raised above the rear terrace as required for the appearance, for example, of the emperor. The faintly rickety, dusty look quite faithfully recalled the Forbidden City in Beijing and there were definitely some visually effective moments. The soloists' costumes were colourful, in some cases visibly copied from actual Chinese theatre (Ping, Pang and Pong, white faced with red streaks, were wreathed in flags; the plebs, though, were all in simple black). Turandot had the usual, Medusa-like headgear, but also, in this case, a gold mask that Calaf ripped off towards the end (i.e. when he might equally have been ripping off her bodice).

That was one of the production's ideas, and a better one than the chorus's rapid semaphoric gestures, which they managed only fitfully, or Calaf's disappearance, once he'd decided to go for the riddle, through a brightly-lit moon door (or science-fiction Stargate) that opened and closed like James Bond's camera shutter. He made no attempt at acting but simply strutted around and took up poses, legs apart. I'm not sure his grim facial expression changed once and I must admit I wondered what Liu and Turandot saw in him (And if looks count, Turandot should really have married the Prince of Persia). Szilvia Rálik, on the contrary, threw herself into the role, so it wasn't surprising to see her turn up for dinner afterwards at the same restaurant as my little party: she must have been starving. I'd be quite happy to see her turn up at the Paris opera, in slightly less demanding roles.

Incidentally, there is noticeably no sign, in Budapest, of opera audiences growing old: everyone is there, mum and dad, grandma and granddad, the kids and courting couples, all dressed up to the nines and apparently enjoying every minute. Paris's Seraglio wasn't worth twelve times as much.

Maestro Wenarto sings "In questa reggia" and "Nessun Dorma".


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