Summer spectacles in Austria
The Great Wall glows golden, the lake silver, the audience bronze. The last light of an Austrian midsummer’s day provides a fairy-tale setting for Puccini’s imperfect fairytale, Turandot.
It is July last year and I am one of about 7000 audience members seated in an amphitheatre gazing across Lake Constance to Switzerland and Germany while waiting for the sunrays to fade and the show to begin.
A voice on the PA informs us, in several languages, that we can buy cushions, blankets and even Swarovski opera glasses to enhance our evening.
The floating stage for this 70th anniversary production of the Bregenz Festival is a curving, dragon-like slice of the Great Wall of China guarded by terracotta warriors, some of whom are submerged in the lake, others visible over the top of the wall.
A man in a white Mao suit and red crown stumbles on to stage, apparently performing a pre-show mime. I have only a vague idea what’s going on as the libretto is in Giacomo Puccini’s native Italian and the Ubertiteln (surtitles) are in German, neither of which I speak. But the spectacle and singing transcend language barriers.
The entire Vienna Symphony Orchestra relocates to balmy Bregenz for the summer season each year.
The stunning stage set, conceived by British designer Es Devlin, debuted in 2015. For Bizet’s Carmen, the festival’s 2017-18 production, Devlin has conjured an arch of playing cards framed by giant hands complete with chipped red nail polish.
Coincidentally, the Bregenz-inspired Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour also staged Carmen this year.
The genius of Devlin’s Turandot set is revealed shortly into the first act when the central wall dissolves in a billow of smoke to reveal a legion of Mao-suited figures — the chorus, of course — flooding on to the stage. The spectacle draws gasps from the audience, but it’s just the first of many staging surprises.
In one act the central disc dominating the forward stage transforms into a steampunk vision of cogs and spinning whetstones; in another, it becomes a rayed sun framing the old king Timur in his wheelchair, which in turn morphs into a fearsome dragon. And at the end of the show, it swivels upright to become a screen, beaming vision of the conductor and orchestra in their pit on to the stage for a well-deserved ovation.
The stage and costumes seem like a cross between a Tim Burton fantasy and the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, complete with fire sticks, ribbon twirlers, and a lantern-lit barge gliding across a lake scattered with flower petals. There are dragons and flags and a fountain that starts flowing, magically, from the wall. I feel like a five-year-old at my first circus.
The fantasy of the piece is enhanced by Puccini’s soaring music. The Bregenz festival attracts some of the world’s finest performers: Liu the slave girl, performed by Guanqun Yu, and Timur (Mika Kares) are particular crowd favourites this night.
But the highlight, naturally, is the last act, when the whole city is on edge after Turandot has ordered that noone in Peking may sleep until the name of her mysterious suitor-prince is revealed. The Mexican tenor Rafael Rojas lifts his voice into the still night air for a performance of Nessun Dorma — None shall sleep! — that brings tears to the eyes and goosebumps to the skin.
Opera purists may baulk at the overblown spectacle but each summer season about 250,000 people cram into the amphitheatre to be transported by these Bregenz blockbusters.
As the London Telegraph’s veteran opera critic Rupert Christiansen put it after watching a performance of Andrea Chenier in 2011, “There’s something undeniably exciting about opera projected on this lavish scale.”