An Exceptional Turandot at the Vienna Opera with Asmik Grigorian in Claus Guth’s Captivating Staging

An Exceptional Turandot at the Vienna Opera with Asmik Grigorian in Claus Guth’s Captivating Staging

mardi 4 juin 2024

©Michael Poehn

Claus Guth’s new production, which premiered at the Vienna Opera last December featuring Asmik Grigorian as Turandot and Jonas Kaufmann as Calaf, both in their debut stage roles, was met with resounding success, with performances sold out.

This June, the revival of Puccini’s opera brought back the same cast, albeit with Ivan Gyngazov as the unknown prince and Axel Kober conducting in place of Marco Armiliato. Tickets were once again snapped up on the first day of sale, highlighting the immense enthusiasm for this production and its top-tier cast. Thus, we attended Puccini’s posthumous opus in a packed house, with Vienna, like other opera capitals, eager to celebrate the centenary of the composer’s death in 2024.

The Luxuriance of the Vienna Opera Orchestra and Chorus

From the very first measures, this Turandot impresses and dazzles with the rich sounds of the Vienna Opera Orchestra under Axel Kober’s passionate baton, which brings out the full richness of this abundant score, and the theatre’s choral ensemble. Rarely do we hear such marvels and splendour in the breadth of sound and musical perfection, even in iconic venues like La Scala in Milan, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, or the Royal Opera House in London.

Notably, the Vienna Opera chose the “long version” of the finale composed by Franco Alfano, as Puccini left his work unfinished due to his premature death. Until recently, the “short version” was usually selected. (Some theatres, to distinguish themselves, have chosen Luciano Berio’s 2001 finale, though this remains rare due to its musical dissimilarities with Puccini’s specific style.) The longer, more complete version by Alfano, without the cuts imposed by Arturo Toscanini, was first recorded in a recital by Josephine Barstow, conducted by John Mauceri for Decca in 1990, and featured tenor Lando Bartolini with the Scottish Opera Orchestra and Chorus. A complete version of Turandot, including Alfano’s long finale, was recorded by Warner Classics and performed in concert in 2022 at the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome under Antonio Pappano.

Turandot 4 GRIGORIAN ENSEMBLE c WienerStaatsoper MichaelPoehn
©Michael Poehn

Claus Guth’s Exciting and Captivating Staging

Initially, we had concerns about the staging, as Claus Guth’s production of La Bohème at the Paris Opéra, which sent the carefree protagonists from Montmartre to the moon in a rocket, was surprising and even off-putting to some audience members.

From the Fabulous Times of Imperial China to a Dehumanised Kafkaesque World

This production transposes Carlo Gozzi’s fable to a minimalist, Kafkaesque setting. Etienne Pluss’s set design features a huge, bare room with three smooth walls and a large door at the back of the stage. The people of Beijing are aligned in three rows at the edge of the stage, their movement punctuated by the “tick-tock” of a clock, suggesting a nightmarish, automated society. This totalitarian regime, reminiscent of North Korea, is depicted through identical green uniforms worn by all characters. The stifling atmosphere is enhanced by the quasi-military structure and the mass beheadings, with heads stored in rudimentary chests.

Death in Chains

In this suffocating world, Calaf (the unknown prince) emerges from the stage, dressed in black like his father Timur and the slave Liù, who secretly loves him. Other victims await their fate in a dark antechamber of death, such as the Prince of Persia, about to be executed. The armed guards prevent any escape, and the gloomy atmosphere is further marked by schoolchildren in the same uniforms, symbolising future oppressors in this clinical, oppressive universe.

In a contrast typical of Puccini’s genius, the sweet and pathetic Liù pleads with Calaf not to face the three riddles that doom princes. However, Calaf, fascinated by the mystery of Princess Turandot, ignores her pleas. To depict Liù’s desperation, the director multiplies her into several clones who bind Calaf with ropes, but to no avail. Calaf is determined to conquer Turandot by solving the riddles.

Turandot 1 MKHITARYAN ENSEMBLE c WienerStaatsoper MichaelPoehn
©Michael Poehn

Tragedy and Commedia dell’Arte

Like Shakespeare, Puccini mixes genres, introducing the three ministers of the Imperial Court—Ping, Pang, and Pong—reminiscent of commedia dell’arte characters. These “puppets” appear in lighter shades of green with flowers in their buttonholes, and perform a choreographed routine that echoes musical theatre.

As the clock marks the passing of time, a white panel descends, creating a narrow hall where the ministers perform their ironic, nostalgic act. They undress, drink beers, and recall the day’s gruesome events, pulling out severed heads from boxes. However, they quickly resume their roles as the enigma ceremony begins.

Turandot 077 GRIGORIAN c Monika Rittershaus
©Michael Poehn

Turandot: A Fragile, Anguished Teenager Living in Seclusion

Unlike the traditional “ice princess,” Guth’s Turandot is a fragile, reclusive young girl surrounded by giant dolls in her aseptic room. Princes are brought here almost daily to lose their heads, violating the privacy of this traumatised young woman. The emperor and the servile populace remind her of the cruel law’s burden, and the act ends with Turandot showing unexpected interest in Calaf after his victory.

From Trauma to the Revelation of Love

In the third act, Calaf’s victory disrupts the nightmarish society, leading to disarray. Faced with Turandot’s refusal, Calaf challenges her to guess his name, ready to die if she succeeds. Liù, tortured to extract the secret, transfers her love for Calaf to Turandot, creating a paradoxical bond between the two women. Turandot, overwhelmed, retreats to her bed, covered by a transparent veil, while Liù is laid to rest in a black mortuary veil.

From Alfano’s Long Duet to an Unexpected Epilogue

In Alfano’s extended finale, Turandot’s hesitations and traumas are revealed until Calaf melts the ice in her heart. Their wedding, though surrounded by pomp, remains in a “petrified” state. In an unexpected turn, Turandot and Calaf exchange a knowing glance, rise from their thrones, and rush out the door, abandoning the staid society to seek a happier future.

Turandot 9 GYNGAZOV c WienerStaatsoper MichaelPoehn
©Michael Poehn

A Top-Notch Vocal Cast

In the arias “Signore ascolta…” and “Non piangere Liù…”, Kristina Mkhitaryan’s voice is both powerful and pure, earning a well-deserved ovation. Ivan Gyngazov, with his expressive, ductile voice and ideal timbre, proves to be a revelation. Asmik Grigorian, renowned for her “interpretative genius,” excels in the challenging role of Turandot, mastering the demanding “In questa regia” with ease and elegance.

The audience gave the performers, the chorus, and the Vienna Opera Orchestra a triumphant, long-standing ovation.

Christian Jarniat

4 June 2024

Direction musicale : Axel Kober
Mise en scène : Claus Guth
Décors : Etienne Pluss
Costumes : Ursula Kudrna
Chorégraphie : Sommer Ulrickson
Lumières : Olaf Freese
Vidéo : Rocafilm – Roland Horvath
Dramaturgie : Konrak Kuhn et Nikolaus Stenitzer
Etude du Chœur : Martin Schebesta

Distribution :

Turandot : Asmik Grigorian
Altoum : Jörg Schneider
Timur : Dan Paul Dumitrescu
Calaf : Ivan Gyngazov
Liù : Kristina Mkhitaryan
Le Mandarin : Attila Mokus
Ping : Martin Hässler
Pang : Norbert Ernst
Pong : Hiroschi Amako

Orchestre de l’Opéra de Vienne
Chœur de l’Opéra de Vienne


  1. Axel Kober has conducted the complete Ring cycle at the Vienna Opera and Tannhäuser at the Bayreuth Festival.
  2. Next season, the Vienna Opera will stage La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, and Turandot.
  3. Asmik Grigorian is renowned for her performances at the Salzburg Festival, including Salome, Puccini’s Trittico, and Macbeth.
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