Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ellen Christine , Rehearsals, Turandot, Roberto, Orange

Sitting on stone bleachers in a Roman amphitheatre.  The chorus is rehearsing Act 1 of Turandot, and the pigeons are singing along with them.  The stage director leads the children's chorus to center stage, and the music of Puccini permeates the old stones.  Piano only.  And voices.  Voices filling the crevices in the rock.  Voices bouncing off the worn stone bleachers, worn smooth by the recurring 8000 people or so who fill the seats year after year, as they have for centuries.
The sun is setting in Orange and the second rehearsal is in full swing.  Roberto Alagna sings in half voice, with his family in the front row.  We can only imagine the alchemy that is being wrought.
  Act I of Turandot opens with a Mandarin  singing up, way up high, on the topmost level of the set.  Calaf/Roberto hides among the pillars of the courtyard, and  the chorus is spread out across the entire stage. The stage director at Choregies, Charles Roubaud, uses the space in a conceptual format, every stone, every inch as part of the environment,  to better allow the magic of this extraordinary opera to happen. The inherent grandiosity is conveyed by using  the different levels of power, and the height, the majesty of this amphitheatre.
The "hands that speak" are the hands of Michel Plasson, a wizard of a conductor.  He is here for the run-through before the orchestra arrives on Sunday.  It is Friday, and he seems happy that everyone is so well prepared.  The hard working chorus responds to those hands, to his language, and the Wall of Sound begins.  Ebb and flow, ecstasy, pain, excitement, fear : all basic human emotions conveyed here via voice, extracted as it were by the very evocative hands of Maestro Plasson.
  In Act II the need for a relief from the tension created by a  cold, cruel princess and the effect she has on her kingdom is provided by the Courtiers Ping, Pang and Pong. Their names may sound like characters from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, but their vocal arrangements are  so harmonious, they provide the presence needed. The audience is now set up for the tender plea of Liu. Drama mounts in the duet between Calaf and the handmaiden, Liu , as the crowd onstage swarms, and the entire scene crescendos: Turandot!  On an almost bare stage, with no costumes, the performance evokes all the needed sentiment.  When  Calaf runs off, we can once again breathe. Roberto's presence onstage is so evocative that we as one , the audience, follow his every move. For the end of act notes, the conductor summons first the chorus, and then the children's chorus.  As he tells them how sweetly they are singing, he manages to tweak their performances with just the right point needed to achieve perfection.
Rehearsal continues with a reprisal, as Calaf/Roberto and Ping/Pang/Pong do their thing.  Roberto is saying to Maestro Plasson that it will be "little by little", close the the footlights under the hot sun.  This is a huge role for Roberto; as they say in French a "prise de role": his debut in this role.  Yes, he's sung the music before, but never AS Calaf in the opera itself. He has lots of time onstage, and lots of high notes (les aigues).  Mr . Alagna will be working very hard.
Be still my heart!
Oh, gosh, I just got a "Hello, Ellen!" from the stage, as he faces me (on the bleachers) and we have a little exchange about his Twitterfeed today.  (He posted a picture of himself, shaving, in one of my hats.) And me, trying to concentrate on the rehearsal!
Back to M. Plasson: watch this man's hands!  Ping/Pang/Pong are onstage on top of a set of BIG bookcases/bookshelves.  The books on the shelves are storybook size.  think of the piano keys at F.A.O.Schwartz for scale.Plasson guides them through their reveries with his will, his cajoling, and his mega-professional attitude.
 Now at the top, and along the stage itself,  with the chorus, and we are immersed in the court music that Puccini composed for the $54,000 Question Show. The power of their voices in this amphitheatre is something that needs to be experienced in person: the walls resound with  magic music.
Calaf/Roberto is 40 feet below the Emperor, who is seated on high, god of the heavens, and he repeats his request to have a shot at the Princess and her game of chance: Filio del Cielo!
Doves fly in and out of their crevices.
Now we have the children singing, as they prepare us for  the magnificent presentation of the magnificent and darkPrincess, who deigns to join the Court , encased in her globe. A globe that protects, and defends, pushed by her slaves to center stage.  Lise Lystrom begins her aria as the sun is setting over the Theatre Antique. The Princess commands the stage, as the doves call to each other . Now  it's time for the triple threat: either Calaf answers her riddles correctly, or he dies.  The intricacy of the riddles is surrounded by trickles of music that set both the mood, and her attitude. Puccini was brilliant.  As Calaf divines the answers one by one,  slaves partially close the globe, her last sacred place. Extracted as it were from her isolation, the Princess makes a measured progression into the real world. The confrontation between the now conquered Princess and the conquering Calaf leads us into the sublime "Nessun Dorma". Just kill me.
Half and hour for a break, and then everyone straggles back in for the rest of the rehearsal.  We will be here until midnight.Night time has now fallen, and on the stage, the chorus  are choreographed carrying lanterns that seem as firefies in the dark. At last,  Nessun Dorma, with Roberto still using only a portion  of his golden voice, in a lower register.  This will protect his vocal chords and save the killer notes for the performances.  There will be three: the full dress and tech rehearsal (la General), and the two performance dates themselves.
What comes next is the death of Liu, in the last piece of music actually written by Puccini himself.  He died just after completing this portion, but he left his masterpiece in the capable hands of Toscanini.  Maestro Toscanini did have the opera finished for  it's first performance  in the 1920's. There's as much drama surrounding the creation of the piece as there is in the opera itself, but we won't cover that ground here.
Liu's death is followed by the inevitable: Turandot in Calaf's arms in sweet surrender. Still trepidatious, but won over by Calaf's intelligence, persistence and charm. The final magical notes fill the amphitheatre, the chorus fills the stage once more, and the Emperor holds forth on high. But wait a minute: it's seduction, Roberto-style, in slow motion. Turandot and Calaf circle each other, as Calaf/Roberto gently lifts her hand to his lips.  He kisses it.  We all sigh.  He places her hand on his cheek.   We all sigh. He caresses her cheek.  We all sigh. And,  they fall into each other's arms.
My heart stopped.

Photos courtesy of Helene Jeanneret

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