Dreaming of Turandot

Dreaming of Turandot

A new production of Turandot is being staged at La Scala for the centennial of Puccini with staging by Davide Livermore, whose thinking focuses on the archetypes that the characters in this fairy tale represent

davide livermore prova turandot

The first Puccini staged by Davide Livermore at La Scala was the inaugural Tosca in 2019. The dramatic brutality of that staging between realistic and dreamy paid homage to one of the earliest masterpieces of modernity (the premiere date, Jan. 14, 1900, is symbolic). Five years later, we have Turandot, the ultimate masterpiece of not just Puccini but melodrama in general, "almost the Requiem of a genre," according to the director, which takes us to the remote time of fairy tales in which it is however difficult to recognize oneself. In both cases, the protagonist-idol is Anna Netrebko.

MATTIA PALMA Your personal history with Turandot certainly does not begin with this production.

DAVIDE LIVERMORE We must go back to my childhood, when I came across what was, to me, the most beautiful Turandot of all time: Nilsson, Corelli, Scotto at the Rome Opera conducted by Molinari Pradelli. I would almost secretly lock myself in my room and put the record in my 1960 Sagittarius model Lesaphon. And I would sing all the roles, especially that of Liù, partly because it was perfect for my tessitura at the time, and partly because Ms. Scotto's holding of the notes seemed like a gift to humanity. The others were always a little puzzled, saying that yes, the music was beautiful, but you couldn't understand a word of it, and I wondered how they could think such a thing of Corelli and other artists of that unattainable level....

MP But you have also sung in Turandot.

DL I have done both Pong and Pang. I am very attached to an experience I had at the Regio di Torino in 1997. John Mauceri was conducting, Alessandra Marc was Turandot and Keith Olsen Calaf. José Fardilha was Ping, a magnificent singer who later became Sara Mingardo's partner. I remember a Mamma Agata from him in Donizetti's Convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali that was of rare enjoyment. Pong, on the other hand, was played by Alessandro Cosentini, a very dear person who has unfortunately been gone for many years now. I played Pang. There were some memorable episodes. During a break, the cover of Turandot came and scolded us, saying we were not doing enough theatre, whereas masks are theatre. However, when the stage manager, Vittorio Borrelli, resumed the rehearsal, she began her "Straniero ascolta" by pointing into the void, not realizing that Calaf was right behind her. It was a hilarious moment; we almost couldn't go on. But aside from these funny moments, I was impressed by Zhang Yimou's magnificent performance, which I have often heard dismissed as a "Chinese restaurant." Instead, it was there that I learned something that I still think is fundamental: rigor. You can put a lot of things into a show, but only if you are able to organize them can you offer a coherent, ethical idea, I am inclined to say.

MP In this production you are searching for an elsewhere. Where do you take us with this fairy tale?

DL From a visual point of view, we are in an invented universe, but with some recognizable features: Chinese prints and other elements that recall an Asian modernity, but at the same time I want something suspended, spiritual, phantasmagoric to be caught. The audience must understand that they are somewhere else right from the movement of the characters, and this can be conveyed in many ways, but above all with the attitude of the body that has nothing to do with mere aping.

I am talking about Aristotelian mimesis, which is always an incorrect imitation — this is the point. It is precisely within this error that the identification of the audience fits, and thus the shift between subject and object. Otherwise, we fall into the narrative, or worse into reality television, where one simply needs to be oneself, renouncing being an artist. In theatre, the accurate and the true never coincide, and we are doing theatre, not Big Brother.

MP Especially in a piece like this, in which one can hardly speak of the verisimilitude of characters.

DL Rather, they are states of consciousness, or rather states of evolution of each of us.

MP Let’s start with Calaf.

DL He is the prince; he is that part of us that can become king, that is ready to be king. However, he is still in the stage of being a son, moreover the son of a blind father. Because Timur certainly cannot see his future, no father can see the future of a son — and I say this as a father. The unknown prince must find the courage to follow his own path, only then will he discover his name.

MP So he doesn't know his name either?

DL He cannot know it; he has not yet sounded the gong with which he will untie the knot of enigmas. Only then will he free himself as well as Turandot.

MP Who is Turandot then?

DL A character who lives in the anger and pain of her ancestor Lo-u-Ling. It is she who conditions her, who possesses her soul, who holds her captive. As a captive, she is Liù, the slave, and this is crucial, from a symbolic point of view, because Liù's death, which is so moving, is actually a necessary death from the point of view of the fairy tale. Liù must die, has to kill herself. Every woman must kill the slave within herself, to free herself from the chains of her ancestors and her own constraints. I am not talking about women's emancipation, or at least not necessarily. It is a general symbolic passage, which affects everyone, men and women.

MP So, it is as if Turandot and Liù are the same person?

DL They are built together, and together they show us their initiatory journey, which is the same one that Calaf also faces, and that we all face.

MP What role do Ping, Pong and Pang play?

DL They are Calaf's internal voices, warning him, inciting him, sometimes hindering him. Freudianly, they are his psychic instincts. They come from the commedia dell'arte, from Gozzi's masks. We all become two-dimensional when we fixate on a specific state of our energy, lose the sense of our personal history and stop looking at life as a process of development. This is the state of crisis in which the prince finds himself. Calaf must overcome his fear of not succeeding, his temptation to give up, to not take risks, to not go all the way. He is a character who reminds us what it means to be young, that courageous youth that is often lacking today.

MP What courage are you talking about?

DL The courage to ask. This is basically what he does when he rings the gong. He creates the conditions for his desire to be concretely manifested.

MP Let's talk about the riddles. One always has the suspicion that the solutions are actually arbitrary, that Turandot decides at whim which answers are right and which are not.

DL The Prince of Persia could have given the same answers as Calaf, and she would still have had his head cut off. But Turandot recognizes a searching instinct in Calaf that the Prince of Persia lacked because he was too arrogant. But beware, the Prince of Persia is not another person. He is, once again, us when we remain desperately attached to our egos. That's why he must die. To pursue our path, we must use our ego for a higher goal.

MP It almost seems like the audience must identify with all the characters.

DL I am reminded of a memorable episode of Muhammad Ali, already suffering from Parkinson’s, while holding the torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He gave a single speech, while trembling. He said, “I, you." This is exactly what happens when we look at these characters: we have to say "I, you" all the time, like in our dreams, in which we never identify with a single character, because we are actually in all the archetypal elements of the dream.

MP We thus enter a more Jungian space than Freudian.

DL I think this is the most Jungian opera there is. A fairy tale like Turandot does not fit into bourgeois theatre behavioural grammars.

MP And what can you tell us about the ending?

DL I don't mind Alfano's ending at all, and it is essential to do it. I say this not only as a musician, but because it is dramaturgically necessary. Ending with Liù's death would be wrong; it would mean giving up hope, which is the key to this story.

MP So, why did Puccini stop?

DL Because he was ill. And perhaps because for him his path of initiation was complete. Now it's our turn to ring the gong, solve the riddles, kill our own enslaved side and come to terms with our painful ghosts.

Mattia Palma
Translation by Alexa Ahern