April 2, 2017

Turandot in Rome: a fond, if blurry, memory.

The year was 1999.

I spent the month of July in Italy as a guest artist at the Operafestival di Roma, where I'd been invited to sing the role of Don Alfonso in a production of Così fan tutte and serve as Chorus Master. (I would return to the festival eleven years later, an experience I chronicled at length in my book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates.) With the food, the friends, the food, the sights, the food, the music, and the food, ....it was a great month. But I digress.
The Stadio Olimpico, Rome, Italy

The Rome Opera had their own production in the works: Puccini's Turandot. I remember that tickets were pretty inexpensive; was it ten lire? Fifteen? I can't recall, nor do I remember the conversion rate, though I know it favored the dollar. Anyway, a bunch of us decided to go on one of our rare evenings off.

This was an outdoor production; the venue was the Stadio Olimpico, a giant structure dating from the 1930's that had been rebuilt nine years earlier to be a modern soccer palace with a capacity of some 75,000. It's located north and slightly west of the city on the Viale dei Gladiatori, which seems appropriate for both sports: calcio and opera

A bus carried us the three and a half miles (5.8 KM if you want to get all European about it) from the hotel Domus Pacis, later known as the Hotel Torre Rosso and now, it seems as the Church Village. We forked over lire notes and climbed into the stadium, scrambling for seats with the best view.

Now, granted: Turandot was created to be opera on an epic scale - a genuine spectacle. But what greeted us at the Stadio was a sight I'd never seen before and don't expect to see again.

One stage? Nope.

Two stages? Try again.

Amazingly, there were THREE FULL-SIZED STAGES BACK-TO-BACK-TO-BACK, filling the length of the playing field. Pardon my lack of artistic talent, but something like this:

This allowed the director to work with an amazing number of human bodies comprising chorus and extras. During the big crowd scenes, I had the sense that if they'd all jumped up and landed simultaneously, the resulting tremor could have brought down the Coliseum.

And yes, the principals were miked. In other words, this was not going to be a performance focused on the subtle nuances of interpersonal relationships and the evolution of character development.

But then, when has Turandot ever been about that?

At the top of the show, you'll recall, Timur is knocked down and Liu calls out for help, attracting the attention of Calaf, who rushes over for a joyful reunion. In this staging, our Prince was on the outisde edge of the stage-right stage, while Liu and Timur were on the outside edge of the OPPOSITE STAGE. The poor tenor had to sprint the length of all three full-sized platforms to make his way over to Papa while the crazed populace of Peking cleared a path for him.

"Excuse me. Coming through. Scusi, scusi".

There really should have been a shuttle bus to get him there, and don't ask me how he was able to sing after that.

And who was in the cast? I have a vague memory that the tenor was named Massimo, which suggests it could have been the noted tenor Massimo Giordano. Giordano would have been 28 at the time and had not yet appeared outside his native Italy, which makes it possible.

As for the rest of the cast, I have no clue. Those names have long since evaporated from memory. Not surprising, since I no longer remember what I had for lunch yesteday. Don't get old, kids.

So it was big, loud, and over-the-top to the max. The conductor was stationed so far from the stage that, in order to cue the singers, he had to leap in the air. In this case, athleticism was at least as important as baton technique. He must have been exhausted afterwards.

By the time the opera had ended, the city bus lines had shut down for the night, leaving us to snag a taxi. It was around one in the morning, so that took a little doing. Now for most of us, our knowledge of Italian was limited to A) the roles we'd sung, and B) knowing how to order meals in a restaurant. Fortunately, my dear friend Heidi Schmidt was with us. Heidi had lived in Tuscany for a year, studying on a fellowship. She chatted amiably with the cab driver and his son, who was in the front seat for some reason if memory serves.

I know what some of you, the purists among my Faithful Readers, are thinking right now. I know my description of this Turandot has you recoiling in disgust. "That's not ART!" And you're right - Art it was Not.

Listen, I have standards too, okay? And I admit that I'll get way more satisfaction from next season's company premiere of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Virginia Opera than I did from that bloated, amplified, vulgar exhibition.

But I wouldn't have missed it for anything. Call it a guilty pleasure - it was FUN.


  1. yes, the principals were miked. In other words, this was not going to be a performance focused on the subtle nuances of interpersonal relationships and the evolution of character development.

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