Lake Constance: Lindau and Giacomo Puccini’s ‘Turandot’ at the Bregenz Opera Festival

Back from a wonderful weekend: We’ve been going to Lake Constance to attend the Bregenz Opera Festival more or less regularly for some 10 years now, and almost every time I’ve come home claiming this was the best thing they ever produced.  This year was no exception.

We left home shortly after 6:00 AM on Saturday morning: It’s a six hour drive to Lindau (at the eastern end of Lake Constance) even under the best of circumstances, and summer weekend travel hardly offers these.  Except for one major incident, we managed to avoid the really big traffic jams, but it still took us seven instead of six hours to get there — which was fine, though; we got to Lindau (the main / historic part of which is on an island connected with the mainland by a rail line and a bridge for cars) at around 1:00pm.  We checked into our hotel and then went down to the harbor front for a (somewhat late-ish) lunch (the drinks are non-alcoholic, in case anybody’s wondering) …

… then took a stroll along the esplanade …

… and past Lindau’s historic city hall and through its city centre …


… back to our hotel, where my mom had a quick nap and I treated myself to the opening of Ali Smith’s “Artful” and — a dessert at the café associated with our hotel.

In the evening it was back down to the harbor…

… where we ultimately boarded a boat as well — and almost literally sailed into the sunset (or, well, actually in the opposite direction, but with the setting sun providing a perfect backdrop to our half-hour cruise to Bregenz).

The Opera Festival’s venue is an outdoor amphitheatre right on the shore of Lake Constance:

Productions change biennually: For this and next year’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, the stage has been set up, inter alia, with a 72 x 27 m (89 x 236 ft) replica of (a part of) the Chinese Wall, plus some 200 replica terracotta warriors rising from the lake.  Costume design was largely a mix of traditional and fairy tale / fantasy Chinese, with allusions to Maoist China however, hinting at the unforgiving cruelty of Turandot’s rule (it was also very clear in the production that it is indeed her who calls the shots, not her father, although he is the titular emperor).  As has been the case in all of the recent Bregenz Opera Festival productions, acrobats and performance artists were part of the production; however integrated even more seamlessly than in the past years.  Also as always, the production made full use of the stage’s lakeside setting, e.g., with barques and rowing boats as a means of transportation. — The opera was performed in the original Italian, with German subtitles on screens to the right and to the left of the stage.

I’ve seen Turandot performed before — but rarely, if ever, done as well as in Bregenz this year.  The entire production values were absolutely stellar; the Vienna Philharmonic (orchestra in residence at the festival) were their spectacular selves, and Calaf (the unknown prince) in particular earned the applause he was getting, and not only for his signature aria “Nessun dorma” (sung to the accompaniment of quacking ducks … the pleasures of an outdoor / lakeside performance!  Well, as he sings in the aria … “nessun dorma” — “nobody sleeps” … not even the resident ducks! 🙂 ).

However, the one lady who absolutely slew me was a Finnish soprano named Marjukka Tepponen, who appeared as Liù, the slave girl who is Turandot’s polar opposite in the love triangle at the opera’s core.  I’ve cried over Liù’s sacrifice before, but never as I did on Saturday night.  Tepponen nailed that role down to its last little detail, and she somehow managed to make the whole grossly voyeuristic public spectacle of Liù’s death a moment of perfect intimacy … which, just because of its inherent contrast (intimacy exposed to the public eye) made it a moment of even greater vulnerability.


For those who don’t know the plot, Turandot is a princess (and, although her father, the emperor, is still alive, de facto ruler) of China, who has decreed that whoever wishes to woo her must solve three riddles, and any suitor who fails to solve even one of them forfeits his life.  (I.e., think Shakespeare’s Portia in The Merchant of Venice, except with an even more draconian punishment in the event of failure.)  So far, every single one of her many suitors has failed; in fact, the opera opens with the beheading of yet another unfortunate fool.

A wezir announces the death sentence of yet another suitor of Turandot’s.

Martial arts acrobats interlude:
Preparations for the unfortunate suitor’s beheading.

The condemned suitor is conducted to his execution.

Enter a mysterious stranger, who however is soon recognized by an old man and a young slave girl in the crowd.  It turns out the old man is his father Timur, now a refugee himself after having been driven out of the court and the land over which he used to rule, and the slave is a girl named Liù, who fell in love with the prince (the incognito stranger) years ago when he showed her kindness, and who on account of this resolved to stay with his father and care for him for the rest of his (or her) life in exile.

The unknown prince watches as Turandot’s barque floats by.

The unknown prince, upon seeing Turandot at the condemned suitor’s execution, of course instantly resolves to try his own hand at the riddles, too.  (Men … Turandot should’ve factored in that, the more impossible the odds, the bigger actually the temptation.)  Obviously, nothing and nobody is able to dissuade him; certainly not Turandot’s own ministers (who are as sick of the bloodshed as everybody else), nor even his father Timur, and also certainly not poor Liù, who can only plead with him — her aria “Signor ascolta” (“My lord, listen”) is the opera’s first signature aria, and on Saturday night, Ms. Tepponen’s first soft little exclamation mark … but there were even better things to come.

The unknown prince and Turandot’s ministers; in the background, Timur and Liù.

[I’d have loved to also get a shot of Liù / Ms. Tepponen during “Signor ascolta,” but they were too far away and the stage was too much dimmed then — and obviously both using a closeup lense and the use of a flashlight were out of the question since photos were a “no-go” to begin with, so I had to snatch whatever moments I could get at all.]

So anyway, to the palace the unknown prince goes.

3 photos: processional entrance of the emperor of China.

The emperor, like everybody else, also pleads with the prince to think twice; also (of course) in vain.

“Figlio del cielo, io chiedo d’affrontar la prova!”
(“Son of Heaven, I ask to undergo the trial!”)

Turandot explains that the challenge to her suitors — openly designed to claim their heads rather than let them succeed — is intended both as an act of revenge for an ancestor, a young princess who was brutally violated and murdered by her own suitor, and who has gone unrevenged for thousands of years, and as a safeguard to make sure Turandot herself will never suffer a similar fate.  Then she poses her three riddles.

In questa Reggia, or son mill’anni e mille, un grido disperato risuonò.”
(“In this Palace, thousands of years ago, a desperate cry rang out.”)

 (Turandot tells her unfortunate ancestor’s story and then poses her riddles:

Straniero ascolta!” — “Stranger, listen!”)

To her immense shock, the unknown prince (of course) solves all three of them.

The prince then proceeds to pose a challenge of his own to Turandot: If she has managed to find out his name by the next morning he will die, as she so clearly wishes.  If she does not manage to unveil his identity, she must marry him.

You can imagine the sort of night that everybody in Beijing is having after that (“nessun dorma” — nobody is to sleep).

[Unfortunately you wouldn’t have guessed as much from the stage lighting of the Bregenz production, which was darned near pitch-black, so … again, no photos.  And yes, I did try, but unlike the prince alas I didn’t manage to beat the odds.]

The nearer morning draws, the more desperate things get.  Someone remembers that the old man and the slave girl have spoken to the unknown prince on the day before — so, they obviously know his identity.  They are dragged before Turandot.  To save Timur, Liù claims she alone knows the stranger’s name.  Turandot orders her torture.  The prince is shackled to keep him from interfering. (Goddamned apologist, Puccini, the guy wouldn’t have saved Liù anyway — the only thing on his mind is getting Turandot, the Ice Queen herself, and what’s the life of a slave girl in the face of that?)  Liù dies with her lips sealed, after having told Turandot: “Keeping silent, I give you to him, Princess, I give him your love.” 

— Melodramatic? Hell, no, not in the hands of Signor Puccini and Ms. Tepponen …

Well, inevitably a new day dawns, and Turandot still doesn’t know the stranger’s name.  At the break of dawn, however, we get a bit of insta-love (which I’ve never particularly cared for, and it wasn’t the Bregenz production’s fault that I didn’t care for it any better this time around, either … it’s in the libretto, unfortunately).  The prince falls over himself to place himself entirely in Turandot’s hands in the last moments before daybreak, so now she could actually claim his life after all: He is Calaf, son of Timur, the erstwhile King of Tartary.  Turandot for her part, however, falls over herself suddenly falling in love with Calaf (or discovering she’s in love with him already — whatever …)  Big embrace.  Turandot goes to tell her father that she’s discovered the stranger’s name, and his name is (you guessed it) “love.”  (Melodramatic?  Hell, yes.) [Also, stage lit just about well enough once more for a final bit of sans-flash photography.]

“Padre augusto … Conosco il nome dello straniero! Il suo nome è … Amor!”
(“August father … I know the name of the stranger! His name is … Love!”)

And as in any good fairy tale, even one starting as brutal as this one, they presumably lived happily ever after.

The End.


Exit the audience, including those who have come from afar.  On our home trip the next day, we took a different route — all along Lake Constance, whereas going south we’d taken the freeway for as long as it was sane to do so without running into even more traffic jams … but we’d figured if going back we’d be stuck in traffic jams again anyway (as was a virtual certainty even before we left), we might as well enjoy the scenery.  Turns out even though it was a rather slow crawl from Lindau almost all the way to Überlingen, at the western end of Lake Constance, we seem to have made the right choice, because we managed to get back home in a little over 6 1/2 hours, which all things considered means we made pretty good time.


Here, incidentally, are Turandot’s riddles.  Would you have kept your heads?


“In the gloomy night
an iridescent phantom flies.
It spreads its wings and rises
over infinite, black humanity!
Everyone invokes it,
everyone implores it!
But the phantom disappears at dawn
to be reborn in the heart!
And every night it’s born
and every day it dies!”



“It flickers like a flame,
and is not flame!
Sometimes it rages!
It’s feverish, impetuous, burning!
But idleness changes it to languor!
If you’re defeated or lost,
it grows cold!
If you dream of winning, if flames!
Its voice is faint, but you listen;
it gleams as bright as the sunset!”


Third and final:

“Ice that sets you on fire
and from your fire is more frosty!
White and dark!
If she sets you free,
she makes you a slave!
If she accepts you as a slave,
she makes you a King!”
Come, stranger!
You’re pale with fright!
And you know you are lost!
Come, stranger, what is the frost
that gives off fire?”


***** HERE BE SPOILERS *****


The Answers:

1. Hope * 2. Blood * 3. Turandot

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