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© Monika Rittershaus
© Monika Rittershaus



kk In the libretto of the opera Turandot it says: “The action takes place in fairy tale time.” What does this mean to you?

cg An imaginary time. For me, the term “parable” is more accurate than “fairy tale”. If you try to stage the work with pure realism, you quickly end up in a blind alley. Turandot is different from – for example – La bohème in being a parable remote from verismo. Essentially, it’s about how a young man – who we know nothing about, except that he’s a fugitive – stumbles into a world whose laws he only gradually comes to understand. Like in a bad dream. He’s been lured by the mythical tale about the female ruler of an empire. She seems to have come from a legend. Nobody has seen her from close up, all his predecessors were beheaded because they couldn’t solve the riddles. Turandot is initially a fantasy image for the Unknown Prince, as he’s called in the score, a fiction he’s obsessed with. He first learns the system from its most brutal and grotesque side. Then there’s the complication of his own past, the prince unexpectedly finds his father (Timur) and a woman who loves him, but who he doesn’t know at all. And all this is very compressed, like a brief résumé of the human condition.

kk The location is shown as “Peking” ... but I think that at the latest since the performance at the “original setting”, the Forbidden City, it’s clear that you won’t get very far if you take this literally.

cg I think that’s actually a major misunderstanding. For generations, set designers have worked from the most diverse illustrations of this place. But I’m not concerned with that at all. Puccini needed a trigger to compose, and he was very skilful in always finding a trigger for himself. I believe he was only interested in China to the extent that he could draw on certain harmonic features and motifs which people associate with China, a compositional access which creates a certain foreign sense primarily through its exoticism. And this is where it becomes interesting for me. Because this helps distance the work and focus our attention on what it’s actually about – less about the grandeur of the sets and costumes, more about the primeval ways that humans organized for living together, and their roots.

kk When I think about the opera, it seems to me that it’s telling three different stories, first there’s Calaf, then Turandot, who doesn’t even appear until Act 2, and finally a story of how the crowd can be manipulated. Which of these three interests you?

cg I want to tell Calaf’s story in Act 1 as he falls into the clutches of the system. How does he experience the system? In Act 2 I’m telling about Turandot’s experience. In other words, a change of perspective. She talks about what happened to her ancestor “many thousands of years ago”. But it’s very clear to me that this has to be about a personal experience, abuse by an outsider. I think the question who did it is of secondary importance. The decisive thing is that we’re looking at a damaged, injured person. I’d like to show the violence of Turandot’s effort to protect herself from becoming a victim again. This lands her in the role of the perpetrator. Once you’ve seen into her, you understand in retrospect the system which Calaf encounters in the first act. The central concept for me is “fear”. Personal fear transfers to society and shapes the system. Fear of being hurt, being weak. Act 3 is about how Turandot and Calaf come together as a couple – a genuine love story between two modern people which I take very seriously. Before they can be together, they need first to be clear with themselves. Here, they can help each other. Particularly today, where many people flit from one relationship to the next, there is frequently bad experience, results from the past, which can’t be simply blown off. This love story is frequently underexplored in performances of the opera. People always take Liù as the embodiment of true love, while the title figure is presented as a cold woman who undergoes a transformation at the end which is difficult to understand. I would like to show Liù more as performing a function, her actions are a concept which evokes changes in Calaf and Turandot. I see her more as a construct, despite the moving music Puccini wrote for her. 

kk If you want to show the love story between Calaf and Turandot, then you can’t finish with Liù’s death and the subsequent music of mourning, as is occasionally done in stagings, following the world première where Arturo Toscanini laid down his baton at this point. How do you deal with the problem that Puccini himself never finished the composition?

cg I must admit that I don’t find that so much of a problem. Franco Alfano, in his original version, known as »Alfano 1«, did that very well. He followed Puccini’s idea and composed a very organic ending. The euphoria at the end tells me that it’s possible to change into another person. This courage to yield to great emotions fascinates me. This is where the story reverts to myth. I find the pomp of the finale interesting in these terms, because it creates a paradox, the couple have just found each other, and they’re immediately torn into the public sphere, functional roles. 

kk Act 1 works with hard cuts and abrupt changes in the mood of the mob, almost like film dramaturgy. In contrast, Act 2 focuses on an ongoing situation, the riddles. Act 3 again has a very episodic structure until the story ends in the duet of the two protagonists. How can you respond to this diversity in terms of the set?

cg We decided to put the chorus in front of the space for the action, as it were, so that the dynamic of its interventions is very strongly evident acoustically. At the same time, we put the emphasis on the two main characters. The story easily gets lost in the wimmel picture that the dramaturgy of Act 1 can evoke. This is why the chorus has a very strong presence here with us, but doesn’t share the stage with the protagonists. We work with a public area, a sort of atrium. You see the door that strongly attracts the prince, but he isn’t allowed in yet. In Act 2, we’re in Turandot’s most intimate space of, her bedroom, on the other side of the door, where her trauma originated. Here, the chorus is acoustically present, but not visually apparent. This makes it an echo of the actions of the main characters. When Calaf solves the three riddles, this leads to a power vacuum. And this is what we see in Act 3: where is the state heading? As often happens, violence in the lack of orientation is directed inwards. The result is chaos. An over-rigid state has flipped into total disorder. There has been a shift in the tectonics of the space. The coordinates have slipped. The settings can no longer be separated. The atrium and the bedroom have become merged, the place where the chorus was located in the first act has suddenly become an intimate area. The breakdown is the only way for something new to emerge, which is completed in the love duet.

kk You talked about the door where Calaf requests admission. There is a concrete inspiration for this element of the set which has to do with Vienna. What’s this about?

cg Years ago, I visited the Sigmund Freud Museum on Berggasse, which is located in the former home. I was only moderately impressed by it. But when I wanted to go back, I suddenly found myself standing before the closed front door, which was protected by heavy locks and bars inside. The man who had worked so intensively to research our primal fears must have felt a pos- itively paranoid need for security. The anti-Semitism of the times certainly gave him good reason for this. Perhaps Freud had a justified fear that society can flip.

kk There are three characters in the opera which come from the commedia dell’arte – Ping, Pang and Pong. They’re taken from Carlo Gozzi’s original, but Puccini reshaped them. In their scenes, “exotic” elements are most apparent. At the beginning of Act 2 they come closest to us. How do you handle this trio, which brings in a comical element?

cg It’s very well constructed by Puccini. In our interpretation we see them initially as a sort of senior official in an ant-like system. They take their duty almost too seriously and are completely caught up in it. They slip into comedy through their fussy obsession with minor details. At the start of Act 2 we see them in private together. This is a glimpse behind the scenes – of the system as well as the three characters. We see how much they suffer from the role they have to play. They express trivial, very human desires, and this makes them real. As if they’re taking off masks. These highly artificial beings are suddenly understandable as private individuals. But then they’re recalled to their duty. In the further course of Act 2 and in Act 3 we see them in different terms, after we’ve seen how hateful the system is to them. Even if they don’t let this show, we are aware of this as onlookers. This is a sort of digression, a very personal, moving little story. The automatic operation of the system means that they can’t escape from it.

kk They’re part of a bureaucracy which despises people. You could associate that with the time the opera was created in, characterized by the rise of Fascism in Europe. How do you relate to that?

cg I see this bureaucracy more from the perspective of a Jacques Tati, or in the context of the writings of Franz Kafka. When bureaucratic procedures are highly ritualized, the horror their effects should evoke is no longer felt. The inhumanity lies in the perfection of the system. Only one thing matters – does something fit the pattern or not? This shuts down empathy. In Kafka the powerlessness of the individual is very clearly described as they collide with a machinery they cannot understand. That’s another meaning of the oversized door in our set.

kk There are declared Puccini haters who criticize his music as sentimental. How would you respond to such judgements?

cg In my socialization as a man of the theatre I was often confronted with this kind of attitude. But when I’d worked on several of Puccini’s operas myself, it became clear to me what an incredible instinct for the theatre he has. He puts the things he’s presenting precisely in focus. I don’t find the emotions false. If they seem to be, that’s because of how it’s done. Conceptually, Puccini is very truthful and intensely aware of the effects. That’s why we go to opera. We’re dealing with great emotions, and you can’t take a half-hearted approach. As a director you have a responsibility to capture the genuine side of it, and that’s only possible with great artists as performers. You can’t work with clichés, just repeating empty gestures. Perhaps you need to get some distance first so that you can put the focus on the story arc again. I sometimes think it’s positively tragic that there’s virtually no music I honour more than Puccini’s, but hardly any performance in the theatre I loathe more than a dishonest interpretation of his works – starting with the fake clichés of the artist in La bohème, which have been repeated for decades and still are, to the ways of presenting Madama Butterfly which we inevitably have serious problems with today. People don’t do Puccini any favours if they take his locations for his pieces too literally – the world has changed, but not the human needs and desires that he finds expression for.

Giacomo Puccini


7.   10.   13.   16.   19.   22.   Dezember 2023

Turandot Asmik Grigorian
Calàf Jonas Kaufmann
Liù Kristina Mkhitaryan
Altoum Jörg Schneider
Timur Dan Paul Dumitrescu
Mandarin Attila Mokus
Ping Martin Häßler
Pang Nobert Ernst
Pong Hiroshi Amako

Musikalische Leitung Marco Armiliato
Inszenierung Claus Guth
Bühne Etienne Pluss
Kostüme Ursula Kudrna
Choreographie Sommer Ulrickson
Licht Olaf Freese
Video Rocafilm