Kaleidescopic Turandot

Kaleidescopic Turandot

The new production of Turandot for the centennial anniversary of Puccini will be conducted by Michele Gamba, who sees a brilliant expression of Puccini's international spirit in this unfinished score

michele gamba saluti Turandot

Michele Gamba conducts Turandot. We are talking about a Maestro who looks half his age in his 40s, already well known at La Scala for having conducted Rigoletto, L'elisir d'amore, Le nozze di Figaro, Medée, the ballet Madina and more. He also performs as a pianist and conducts at a now long list of major theaters, including the Metropolitan, Staatsoper Berlin and Semperoper Dresden. Like other celebrated Milanese conductors, he is passionate about modern music, although his profession is theatre music. He was happy to talk to us about Puccini's last opera, which he conducted before at Torre del Lago. On my own resume, I can boast having been his History of Music teacher at the Milan Conservatory.


FRANCO PULCINI What Turandot do you have in mind?

MICHELE GAMBA The problem I have concerns the "decibels" of Turandot! The power of the orchestration takes its inspiration from the one-acts Salome and Elektra by Strauss, an operatic composer whom Puccini followed closely. There are these celebratory moments, with a full orchestra, a hundred and ten chorus performers engaged in "Russian-style" chorality, a band with six trumpets, trombones, and oriental percussionists. In these parts, it is certainly not a piece that needs retouching, but if anything to be "moderated" with balance.


FP But it is also quite a varied piece…

MG From the instrumental rumble we move to very collected moments, to genuine suspensions. Think of the pauses between the three "riddles." At times there is a rarefied orchestration, for example in the musical description of the moon. Turandot is really a kaleidoscope of styles that were a novelty to ears in the 1920s.


FP Everyone is aware of the chorality…

MG I am impressed by the La Scala chorus, which has had its own interpretative tradition since Toscanini's time. It is a theatre that is always very receptive in welcoming and affirming what’s new.


FP Apart from the Chinese melos, despite the subject matter from Gozzi and perhaps "Nessun dorma...,” it does not seem like a very "Italian" opera...

MG I am very skeptical of recent talk of cultural identification, nor do I love the rhetoric of Italian-ness. True Italian-ness involves a sincere openness to the world. Puccini, one of the most brilliant artistic expressions of our country, was actually resoundingly international in reinterpreting both cultured and popular music, be it Parisian, Viennese, American or Oriental.


FP It seems you love the Tuscan opera composer quite a lot — do you direct him a lot?

MG Of course! I have conducted Bohème, Tosca, Gianni Schicchi, Tabarro, Messa di Gloria and other pieces.


FP You are also very well known as an performer of new music. I don't recall Abbado or Boulez raving about Puccini...

MG But Schoenberg, to whom Puccini expressed his admiration for Pierrot lunaire, loved Tosca, an opera that even Mahler, who was somewhat prejudiced, was obliged to admit how well it was orchestrated. Webern liked La fanciulla del West. Puccini was also loved by Luigi Dallapiccola, who translated serial writing into "Italian lyricism." Zemlinsky conducted the Viennese premiere of Turandot.


FP Then there is that famous passage from "Tu che di gel sei cinta," reminiscent of the "rondes printanières" of the Rite of Spring, almost a quotation.

MG He had heard it and described it as an incredible cacophony composed by a genius. Perhaps the theme remained in his memory, or he wanted to pay homage to Stravinsky. Puccini did not make time to hear Šostakovič's early compositions, nor is there any record that he appreciated Prokof'ev, but that "plastic" post-Russian Revolution world curiously seems to me to be heard among the notes of Turandot.


FP Do you consider it very different from Puccini's other operas?

MG I hear it as an "objective" opera. There is the melody, the thematic invention, the freshness of the themes, but it is Puccini's score most open to the avant-garde of the time. The timbral inventiveness is reminiscent of Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky’s Renard. I really admire the articulation of dramatic tempos. The succession of scenes is very clear, well constructed, with precise tempos and well-thought-out proportions, as if it were Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle. This is a structure that, I would say, is not very Italian.


FP You told us about Russian choralism and Orientalism, but the world of operettas should not be ignored. Ping, Pong and Pang do not have the best reputation for many of those with supposedly more refined tastes.

MG Snubbing the Ministers would be like snubbing Stravinsky! But one has to distinguish: with those who play Ping, Pong and Pang I insist that they do not make these three masks too caricatured. They represent, as Davide Livermore said, Calaf's unconscious, but also reason and common sense. I hope this interpretation is as dry as possible, with dry vocal lines and without parodistic inflections. I would like to achieve a lean, modern, articulate sound. That way, at least, they are no longer looked down on!


FP So you defend them?

MG Again, Puccini portrays them as modernly as Stravinsky could. Let us think of how Strauss treats the masks in Ariadne auf Naxos and compare them to our Ministers: it seems to me that there is a more disengaged commedia dell'arte in Strauss than in Puccini.


FP Michele Girardi wrote that the best ending for Turandot could have been written by Ravel. What ending will you propose this time?

MG One cannot blame him! Ravel said of Puccini, "Il nous a été frère" (he was a brother to us). I have always directed Berio's ending, which seems to me the preferable solution. I understand that there may be doubts about the work he did on Puccini's notes, but his completion of this unfortunately unfinished opera remains the best. Berio considered the Wagnerian influence in Turandot, in which references to Tristan are innumerable. I also had the opportunity to discuss this with Maestro Chailly, who first conducted Berio's finale and also chose it for the last production of Turandot performed at La Scala in 2015.


FP And this time?

MG I conduct Franco Alfano's short finale, the one Toscanini wanted. This is a new production, which will be revived in 2026, the centenary of the first performance, so it was also created as a tribute to Toscanini.


FP Puccini composed on the piano, and you, as a former "correpetitore," were a performer of piano pieces. Hermann Scherchen, in his treatise on conducting, said that the conductor should not be influenced by the phrasing of the piano, but should think with the orchestra. What can you tell me about that?

MG The piano helps you understand harmonies right away and conceive a phrase. Of course, it deprives you of the colors of the orchestra. But the piano, I must say, pushes you to keep the structure unified. Analyzing the details of the instrumentation, on the other hand, leads you to create divides with the baton, it imposes a topographical detail of the piece, with the risk that you don't achieve unity in the whole. Detail should certainly be identified and excavated, but not at the expense of the long line of the phrase. In this, the piano is helpful.


FP In opera, do you think a conductor should square the rhythm, Toscanini-style, or go along with the vocal qualities of the performers?

MG The second! I am fortunate to always work with high-level casts, from whom there is much to learn. Every singer has a human experience that has dictated interpretative choices. Even those making their debut in a role have their own personality, which must be listened to and understood. Anna Netrebko has a wonderful voice, with which she can do what she wants, but her artistic sensibility leads her to let things flow in Turandot, for example in the riddle scene. I imagined Rosa Feola would bring a Liù that is, how can I say, "aestheticizing", whereas she is very different. With all of them, I don't beat time, I let them sing. And great voices should be listened to carefully. It is a worthwhile, enriching effort. However, their art must find a place in a coherent form.


FP And the orchestra?

MG The orchestra can also benefit from listening to the phrasing of a great performer. The accompaniment must be consistent with the melody, with its dynamics. Even when there is no coincidence of intent, or one even disagrees, one then finds ways to make the whole work in a synthesis that excites the audience.


Franco Pulcini
Translation by Alexa Ahern