Opera: Giacomo Puccini / Turandot

Another one from the archives – more Puccini, this time from 2009. A light remembrance of a night at the State Opera House in Budapest.

Puccini’s Turandot was on the schedule last week. Staged by the Hungarian State Opera at one of the world’s most beautiful venues for opera. Yes. 

I saw Madama Butterfly a.k.a. Pillangókisasszony at the State Opera two years ago and was quite satisfied. The opportunity to see my favorite opera in the same setting – with seats in the 11th row going for approximately $60 each – was too good to pass up. 

The State Opera House was designed by Hungarian architect Miklós Ybl and was built in the late 19th century. Finally finished in 1884, it was an instant hit with the culture and music-loving public. Like most of the great monuments in Austria, it was built exclusively with Hungarian craftsmen and labor (had to insert that class war joke). Statues of some of the world’s greatest composers decorate the third story railing on the outside, and the inside boxes and section railings are stunningly burnished with seven kilos of pure gold.  

Károly Lotz‘ ceiling frescos of the gods on Mt. Olympus kept my neck at a 90 degree upward tilt whenever the house lights were up. I took photos while in this posture…  

First curtain was at 7 p.m. This production starred Hungarian crowd-pleaser Georgina Lukács as Turandot, Attila B. Kiss (what a name for a tenor!) as Calaf and Frankó Tünde as Liu.  

The singing was very good. Lukács was a good fit for Turandot in attitude and voice. Kiss I enjoyed as Calaf – he projected plenty of the kind of husky masculinity required for this instigator of irrational passion. In his singing Kiss sometimes lingered a bit long on the runway taking off into the high Cs, but I still gave him a pass. The orchestra and chorus were in good form too. 

The set design was the usual for Hungarian opera – traditional and solid. I had one nagging complaint about the stage setup, though. Poles with white featureless heads mounted on them formed a fence at the front of the stage, as Turandot’s sentimental reminder of her former boyfriends (check the synopsis if this confuses you). These poles often obscured the action, even blotting out the faces of Kiss and Lukács as they delivered their arias. This hiding of the singers’ faces behind styrofoam wig forms on broomsticks didn’t strike me as brilliant staging. As the curtain opened in Budapest, somewhere in London David Hockney may have felt a mysterious pang of indigestion. 

But there’s no indigestion that some distilled spirits in the luminous bar can’t cure. Intermission, to me, means: champagne before first curtain, and a whiskey to prepare for Act III. And as the house lights came up we trotted upstairs to indulge. 

I remembered from my previous experience that you need to high-tail it up to the mezzanine bufé ahead of the pack if you want to get anything before the curtain bell. And true to my memory, the Opera House bartenders were lazyass good-for-nothings who couldn’t pour water out of a bucket in the rain. Adding insult to injury, they scorned their unearned gratuities with leering snobbery. But good planning around these hack bartenders allowed for plenty of time to chat about the performance, which resulted in two perfect interludes.  

Act II exposed another slight problem with staging. Ping, Pang and Pong sang their nostalgic three-part in front of the curtain, painted to resemble a chinese screen. Only problem is – the production designer forgot to saw a rectangle in the screen to show the supertitler, and for 10 minutes or so anyone not fluent in Italian was in the dark as to what the three were singing about. Doh! No wonder the Hungarians feel alone in the world. 

Act II intermission: Disappointed to find no admission to the outside balcony, to prevent cold winter draughts from bothering those in the foyer not equipped with wraps. This was too bad, as a breath of fresh air on the handsome balcony overlooking Andrássy Út was a ritual I looked forward to. 

The third act began with its proper air of mysticism borne of demented passion, awash in midnight blue light and Kiss’ Calaf’s wandering the stage in a manic-depressive trance. Nessun Dorma got the only bravo of the night, shouted from someone in the stalls. However, bravos or no, the finale and curtain brought hearty ovations from the full house, with Tünde getting extra helping of huzzahs for her performance as Liu.