Opera Australia 2022 Review: Turandot

By Gordon Williams
(Photo credit: Prudence Upton)

Storywise, Puccini’s “Turandot” presents an interesting challenge. Based on a fairytale dramatized by 18th century Italian writer, Carlo Gozzi, it doesn’t quite fit into Puccini’s more natural style. And even casual audience members might find themselves asking, “If Turandot is so horrible nearly all the way through, how can we believe her sudden change of heart at the end?” The problem lies, probably, in expecting her to be a redeemable human in the first place.

But Puccini’s style was closer to 20th century Italian “verismo” or realism. And, consistent with realistic emotions, Puccini added a truly realistic character to the cast list – Liù, the servant girl who commits suicide rather than reveal Prince Calàf’s name.

Why begin the review from this angle? Because, for me, the most affecting scene – and it really was affecting – in Opera Australia’s recent revival production of “Turandot,” which opened at Sydney Opera House on January 12th, was in Act one where Calàf (Korea-born tenor, Yonghoon Lee) and Liù (Korea-born soprano, Karah Son) meet up in Peking where she has joined Calàf’s father Timur, deposed king of Tartary (bass David Parkin), wandering the world in exile.

Soon after, Calàf, himself newly-arrived in Peking, sees the princess Turandot and falls instantly in love with her. He is determined to try his hand at answering the three riddles that the cold-hearted Turandot poses to anyone who wishes to marry her, though he knows that failing to answer any one of them will mean his execution. In a pair of arias, “Signore, ascolta!” and “Non piangere, Liù,” Liù and Calàf respectively almost concede their feelings for each other, as Liù tries to persuade Calàf not to submit to the challenge. “I can bear the heartache no longer,” she effectively says, and Son’s voice rode tellingly on the orchestral swell, a fine example of how she would beautifully match what was happening in the pit.

Calàf asks her not to cry for him, but to continue to look after his father. Possessing a focused voice that could penetrate massed textures Lee was doubly moving in the way he would taper off on an affectionate word such as “fanciulla.”

Audience tears would have been an appropriate response to this scene as performed by Yonghoon Lee and Karah Son. Our veristic sympathies (and this was from the moment that Son and Lee’s voices cut through Act one’s choral textures) easily gravitated toward them.

Strange conflict, though, in an opera titled “Turandot,” but the realism/fantasy divide is not really a fatal flaw; just one of those anomalies that make a near-masterpiece more intriguing and challenging for any director faced with presenting it.

Gloomy Darkness

Should the production be bathed in legendary splendor or reflect something closer to the opera’s darker, tragic undertones?  After all, there was a real-life dimension here: in 1909, a maid in the Puccini household, Doria Manfredi, committed suicide rather than – similarly to Liù – reveal a secret concealed by her employer.

Graeme Murphy’s 1990 production, revived here by Shane Placentino, honestly acknowledged a kingdom oppressed by Princess Turandot’s cruel treatment of suitors. Even though the colors of the late Kristian Fredrikson’s sets brightened somewhat in Acts two (the riddle scene) and Act four, we never saw the opulent splendor that we might have expected from an opera set in legendary Beijing. It began in gloomy darkness, a darkness that ended with a promise to lift by Act four, with some striking primary colors along the way, notably the red that backed Turandot (Lise Lindstrom) on entrance.

Director Graeme Murphy was for several decades Artistic Director of Sydney Dance Company and this production of “Turandot” had notable balletic features. Sometimes they were eloquent, as when the waving of red ribbons symbolized the flowing of blood, or white ribbons moved around on poles suggested ghostliness in this story which is admittedly haunted by resentments-past. Placing Calàf in the middle of huge blue billows just before his big Act three number, “Nessun dorma”, was a particularly effective visual analogue to the nocturnal music with which Puccini portrays an un-sleeping city whose inhabitants have been commanded on pain of death to discover the riddle-solver’s name by morning.

Other times, particularly in relation to dealing with the chorus, choreographic movement, though giving life to otherwise bound-in-place formations, could come across as unnecessary additions to singing that was fully impressive in itself. (The Chorusmaster was Paul Fitzsimon.) But it seems churlish to make too much of this point. It is almost as if the crowd movement was trying to butt against the restriction of a stage that is arguably too narrow. What to do? It’s a story that calls for surface flatness rather than the compensations of perspective, notwithstanding the addition of a realistic character in Liù.

Cutting Bitterness

Given the nature of the story, making the title role of Turandot sympathetic presents quite a high bar. But a challenge that has been met many times by American soprano Lise Lindstrom who has made something of a specialty of the role. We never see Turandot’s ancestor, Princess Lo-u-Ling, whose rape over a thousand years before has hardened Turandot’s heart against men, but we could hear this long-ago event in Lindstrom’s clear evocation of the long-distant scene, in the cutting bitterness of the way she delivered parts of the text and the impressive musical arc of her re-telling.

We also saw convincing evidence of fragility in Lindstrom’s depiction of defeat in the riddle scene, where Calàf’s “light bulb” answers, supported by impassioned gesture, gradually wore down Lindstrom’s convincing portrayal of monumental impassiveness. “Would you embrace me by force?” she sings when he has overcome all her obstacles, and her voice soared over full chorus in touching anguish. Given this set-up, the final love duet was ultimately convincing in Lee and Lindstrom’s interpretation.

Supporting roles were well-delineated. Luke Gabbedy was a particularly malicious Ping in the scene where the baritone in the trio of court ministers (Ping, Pang and Pong) tries to get Calàf’s secret out of Liù. And the opening scene of Act two where the three ministers (the other two singers were Iain Henderson and Virgilio Marino) sing nostalgically of their former homes far from this oppressive Peking was one of the most charming scenes of the whole night. There was imaginative use of screens here which could function as swings, hammocks, swags or boats as Ping, Pang and Pong recalled either a house in Honan with a little blue lake, forests near Tsaing, or a garden near Kiù. Particularly effective were the black-clad assistants manipulating these screens, rather like kuroko (the “invisible” stagehands more familiar as a device in Japanese Kabuki Theater).

Among other supporting roles, Dean Bassett’s Emperor was worthy of note. Singing deliberately quietly at all times, Bassett cleverly interpreted the long-reigning Emperor, Turandot’s father, as a shadow of his former self, albeit poking out the top of a massive cone-shaped royal robe which towered over all other characters on stage (costumes also were designed by Kristian Fredrikson).

There was an appropriate prevalence of dark colors on stage in this production but the playing of the Opera Australia Orchestra, under the direction of Italian conductor, Renato Palumbo, beautifully revealed the colors of this, Puccini’s most exotic score. Orchestral passages were virtual tone-poems and it was in the musical interpretation that we could enjoy the fable’s bright splendor. Talking of balletic illumination, occasional glances at the side monitors revealed a conductor whose gestures lovingly communicated the shapeliness of Puccini’s last score.

It is arguable whether the balletic and lyrical pulls of this production were completely reconciled but what is unarguable is that the audience hung closely on the story all the way through. Proof of this?  No applause at the end of “Nessun dorma” (the opera’s usually-guaranteed showstopper) nor Liù’s final defiance (indeed death: “Before dawn I will close my tired eyes”), nor David Parkin’s moving grief for her as Timur. It wasn’t as if the audience was unimpressed (both Lee and Son were remarkable in their iconic moments) – the curtain calls were loud and enthusiastic.

It’s just that this audience was engrossed in the tale.


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