What are the stakes in “Turandot?” Calaf must answer a riddle or lose his head. Turandot must find out her suitor’s name or she will have to marry him. The people of Peking will have to help their icy princess to do just that or they will all be tortured and killed, in heartbeat, and in one fell swoop. No time to debate and decide new laws. That’s how it’s been for so long. 10,000 years? Too long. But what can anybody do? This is an Empire of long, long ago. This is a land of sacred oaths and vows and promises that can only be broken under pain of death. In other words, a mythical world, Turandot. Giacomo Puccini’s final opera, the one he died while writing before he could finish.
San Francisco Opera’s production by David Hockney, here revived by Director Garnett Bruce, succeeds in delivering it in glamorous style – set design of unusual geometric shapes, some flying at angles, vivid colors, varied lighting palette by Thomas Munn and Gary Marder – riddles, princesses, a wide array of exotic characters, who stand before us in stunning colors and elaborate, detailed costumes by Ian Falconer, in a world as colored and diverse as they – but only occasionally with soul. Here is a fairy tale with sonorous music, blended choruses – boys, men, girl, women, lost father, Bass, slave girl, Soprano, and, Mandarin official, Brad Walker, Emperor Altoum, Robert Brubaker, and on top of it all, an icy princess who soars above them all and runs the show, so to speak.
The performance unfolds quickly, partly as a result of the music, conducted by Nicola Luisotti, at a rapid-fire pace. Also adding to the quick pace were the quick processions, dancers with ribbons (whose dancing was choreographed by Lawrence Pech), fierce-looking executioner, whetstone sharpening sword by bare-bottomed slaves, and a large chorus which waxes emotional with hands and movement, and voice (directed by Ian Robertson). Without that, the opera, at least in Act one, loses its punch. The colorful instrumentation, consisting of glockenspiel, xylophone, marimba, harps, tuned gongs, tam-tam, chimes, cymbals, in addition to the strings, winds and brass, provide ample variety from the strong opening three chords, to the unfolding leitmotifs, and with pentatonic overtones and actual Chinese melodies that we savor like a banquet in a large and sumptuous hall – without deliberation. In addition to the 73 in the orchestra pit, 13 stand backstage.
Calaf, son of Timur, Calaf, American tenor, Brian Jagde in his role debut, while soaring in the empyrean of the upper register, truly came to life and passion with the gong he struck at the end of Act one. Prior to that, he came off as somewhat disconnected from the other characters around him. For instances, when he met his father after a long absence, he took a quick glance at him and sang out to the audience of how glad he is to see him, not allowing for true intimacy between the two. So too, with Liù, the lovely and loving slave girl who adores him. One had to ask, “Does he really remember her?”
By Act two, however, Jagde connected his soaring notes with more actual feeling both for the part he played and the people he loved, particularly with the Turandot he loved on sight, even from a veiled distance! During his “Nessun Dorma,” he hit all the high notes and smiled along with them. Dressed in red satin, along with his bride at the end, he truly stood as proud as a peacock, his kind of hero.
Soprano and internationally renowned Turandot interpreter Martina Serafin, not only looks the part of the beautiful icy princess with the fire in her voice to boot, but acts it as well – hands, head, posture. From the minute she comes on stage, we feel presence, conviction, belief. Halleluiah. It is Serafin that sets the rest of the opera’s tone. Instead of Luisotti’s speediness, she established a pace with more amplitude. While the opera is more than make-believe and mythic, it still asks for some stateliness. When Serafin’s Turandot moved, all watched; when she stood still and used her hands as elegant guide-posts for what she wanted, all paid attention; when she sang, all listened.
Serafin has a full and resonant voice, if streaky in this performance. Some of the high notes rang shrill, some of the lower, disappeared in the lower regions. All in all, however, she was convincing, beautiful, lustrous, her eyes flashing fire, her body a portrait dedicated to the delivery of her message. “In questa reggia” she sang with definitive power and forcefulness. We could not escape her investment in success or rhetoric.
Serafin’s transfiguration from figurehead to woman by the end, long after Puccini put down his pen, was convincing. In Act three, when Calaf tells her his name, she even seemed to consider revealing it, saving herself and risking his death, and we even wondered if she would. It was a good touch.
Liù was never a question, however, as far as her voice is concerned. Played by soprano Toni Marie Palmertree, she delivered both her famous aria, “Signore, Ascolta” in Act one and her “Tu che di gel sei cinta” in Act three, with lustrous, gleaming and moving sound, and soul. Until she began the first, she scurried around Timur, Raymondo Aceto, mincing and bobbing without “gravitas,” but when she began to sink into the lyrics, her passionate lyricism began to shine. The aria went by too quickly for much more than a taste of that lyricism – again here was Luisotti racing. By the time the Act three aria occurred, however, she was settled, he was settled and there were sounds and longings of significance.
For the opera is about longing, after all – the longing for love, for freedom, for home, though it stays camouflaged by the elaborate story line, even the chorales Puccini explored throughout. Ping, Joo Won Kang, Pang, Julius Ahn, Pong, Joel Sorenson, for example, bring this theme forth most significantly in Act two, when they stop some of the Gilbert and Sullivan antics and reflect on the homes they have left behind by a lake or bamboo grove, to take up with sacred books.
Meanwhile, Turandot wants love, despite herself, Calaf wants to take his place in front of the people with his beloved cohort, the Emperor wants to continue for another 10,000 years, and the chorus, as the people of Peking, wants to live a good and happy life rather than the one filled with the extensive blood shed it has long undergone. Longing too for a kind of freedom that isn’t bound up with sharpening swords on whetstones, but rather with moon-watching that is fruitful and satisfying – that undergirds much of the narrative. The haunting melodic lines that thread the opera splice this theme with the jagged and bombastic and tinny tinkling that makes up parts of the rest of the score.
In SFO, the finale, bathed in red, brings us finally into a different universe – ice has turned fire – love conquers all, and a bit of clever riddle answering – and even though the lovely Liu died longing, the story of her love helps in Turandot’s transformation. What else should a fairy tale be?