Hannah Abel-Hirsch


AES+F collaborate with an Italian theatre director for a futuristic take on Puccini
Feature, British Journal of Photography, Cool & Noteworthy, Issue 7891 —  January 2020  

Turandot, which Giacomo Puccini wrote in the 1920s, was the Italian composer’s final opera before he died. Count Carlo Gozzi’s 18th- century commedia dell’arte inspired Puccini’s production, which Gozzi, in turn, adapted from the 12th-century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi’s Haft Paykar, a saga of seven stories. The plot stems from an agreement between Princess Turandot and her emperor father, which permits the princess to murder any prospective suitor unable to solve three riddles. One prince succeeds, but Turandot refuses his hand and pleads with her father for protection. Ultimately, she falls victim to his forced advances; love replaces her revulsion.

The plot is deeply misogynistic: a cold-hearted princess whose independence manifests as murder, and is eventually broken down by sexual assault. The setting is also problematic – a fictitious China pervaded by exoticism. However, theatre director Fabio Cherstich and multidisciplinary Russian artist collective AES+F– composed of Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich, Evgeny Svyatsky, and Vladimir Fridkes – have reinvented Turandot for the modern era. “The fact that it is problematic attracted us to it,” explains AES+F. “We like to layer contemporary meanings on populist, conservative and sentimental subjects.”

Premiered at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo in January 2019, the revised Turandot is set in 2070 in Beijing, the capital of a global empire where the division between East and West has collapsed. Princess Turandot is now an empress who has established a radical matriarchy informed by techno-feminism, in which she works to avenge the rape of an ancestor. A hyperreal 3D animation, created by AES+F, visualises the story, and Cherstich explains that this is not a backdrop for the live opera, but rather the focus of the production.

“AES+F has created a new visual language,” says Cherstich. “My work as a director was not only to stage Turandot, but also to stage AES+F.” The collective’s distinct aesthetic involves animating images in combination with computer graphics. “Photographs have a much higher resolution than video, which gives us more freedom to compose the frame in post-production,” says AES+F. “The photograph is the starting point of, and raw material for much of our work.” The collective also designed the costumes, which reference the totalitarian fashion of the 1940s, and the minimal set design. Cherstich limited the live action on stage so as not to detract from the video behind – a decision that attracted criticism from both spectators and critics who failed to recognise that this was the intention. “The project explores what an opera can be – it is an experiment,” he says.

The animation is populated by multi- ethnic men and women clad in underpants and sportswear who inhabit a hypermodern landscape composed of biomorphic structures. The empress takes the form of a colossal baby, enduring the unrelenting ardour of a society traumatised by their collective past – our present. A dragon-shaped aeroplane glides above, and within, the sinuous limbs of androgynous biorobots slowly torture and decapitate any man who propositions the empress. Cradled in flower buds and petals, their severed heads erupt from the aircraft’s underside via a vulva-shaped opening. A paradise eventually emerges, in which gender is fluid and people, animals, robots and plants engage in many forms of love.

Empress Turandot’s world is scarred by the collective memory of our current culture’s social ills. “[The rape of Turandot’s ancestor] is depicted as a catalogue of harassment, which refers back to our time,” says AES+F, who in collaboration with Cherstich, has employed Puccini’s opera as a canvas on which to explore myriad contemporary issues, including #MeToo, cancel culture, fears and projections about China’s rising power, technological advances, and the future of automation.

The revised Turandot also alludes to and satirises the misogyny and Orientalism central to Puccini’s production. The dragon-shaped plane, which is Empress Turandot’s palace, resembles a giant toy, thereby referring to the West’s consumption of mass-produced Chinese goods. Feminism is hyperbolised to a grotesque extreme, with the bloody beheading of men, to draw attention to the original storyline’s underlying misogyny. The revised Turandot embodies a multitude of meanings and references within the visuals that comprise it so “the richer your background and the more open your mind is, the more you will see”.