San Francisco Opera 2017-18 Review – Turandot: Exquisite Nina Stemme, Leah Crocetto, Brian Jagde Lead Socially Relevant Interpretation of Puccini Masterwork

By Lois Silverstein

To wait for one whole act, plus a quarter of a second, just to glimpse the heroine, let alone hear her, is practically a crime. Especially, with all the talk. From the moment the curtain rises, what do we hear? Turandot, Turandot, Turandot. And so, where is she? On and on, troops of “the people” – boy chorus, various authorities dressed in fantastic colorful garb, ministers of ranks we never even dreamed about, executioners, semi-naked ax grinders, lamp-carriers, you name it – Peking, of an undefined time, plus the trio of clowning – quasi-chorus – upper-rank servants – Ping, Pang, Pong… Will she never appear?

But, finally, Act two, and after various maidens with more than Rapunzel-length hair, and in braids, strewing rose-petals hither and yon, here she comes, as well as dancers and acrobats somersaulting across the stage. Outstanding. Worth the wait. Commanding the stage. Looking appropriately icy and startling. Standing with unwavering insolence. Determining anything you have thought before this moment and just about for any other – Fire and Ice, Princess Turandot. Calaf himself is in awe. If he loved her before, he knew nothing of love; if he envisioned her before, he must have been sightless. For, here she is: bold, assured, powerful. No question who is in charge, and how: Woman-Force without a quiver. In times like ours, here is someone who not only looks the part, but is: brains and beauty and conviction.

By the time we arrive at the final act, whether or not Maestro Puccini would have had it so or not, Standard Franco Alfano’s version – we find a girl-ish woman, tearful, astonished, vulnerable. Was she waiting in her tower for such a transformation? “Frog” for true princess? Only the Calaf knows, and in SFO’s production, clearly this Calaf, Brian Jagde, Tenor, reprising his September SFO performance is sure of it. He who loved her from afar, without doubt, it seems, not only answer her riddles with apparent ease, but with a big kiss, knows the truth of her heart: LOVE after all, and evermore shall be.  All this waiting had to result in some positive resolution. Surely, we can’t leave the theater with the specter of the blue-eyed Calaf aloft with a severed head.

Empowered Woman

Nina Stemme, internationally renowned Swedish Soprano, sings with authority. The famed diva inhabits the upper register as if she were born there – of course, her extensive repertory of Wagner as well as Verdi, Strauss, and Puccini – supports that ease. The brutally challenging role of Turandot requires moments of push, yes. To sing in the empyrean as if it were natural? No wonder she didn’t show up much in the first and part of Act two: what a job. And yet, Stemme never failed to show rich and extended voluminous tone in her singing, variety, roundness as well as intricate detail in sound and dramatic expression. Her blue eyes dart left and right with deliberate conviction, whether at her dreamer-lover who aims to defy her – “Oh really, they seem to say;” her mouth, never slipping or sneering, never deriding; her hands, with closed fingers like darts, pointed toward each other at her waist or out to her side when apt; her arms akimbo or outstretched, accenting her control and her range. Stemme sat us on the edge of our chairs.

Her majestic quest – to keep Woman Pure – to hold the line against the demands of the lustful and greedy men who want to rule her – lifts her into the category of warrior women, in effect. She uses her riddles to control – i.e., she uses her mind; she uses her power to set the scenes, she shows control over the horrible deaths of those who seek her hand. But when it comes time to let all that go, what do we find? A kinder, sweeter, tender, loving – but note – not simpering, whimpering one – Stemme/Turandot uses those exquisite hands to stop Calaf from climbing the stairs to the Emperor alongside her only after. She is a woman who can love but not forget her strength and power; Calaf obeys. And all ends well.

Glorious Voices 

Stemme and Jagde duet well together; his ringing tenor for moments matched Stemme’s register, even though she went places he didn’t: but no need. Jagde’s Calaf convinced us of his ardor, particularly in Act two; and her low notes never rang hollow or off the mark, blending with his color well enough. Stemme’s surprise at his successful solutions to her questions – even astonishment –  came with ease. She was no wooden figurine, although she looked it when she appeared with that glorious head-dress and golden accoutrements – who could walk down the stairs without faltering – but as a living and breathing person; women can be this way, this suggests, especially when created from their own imaginations rather than her counterparts. While Stemme’s  postures remained static, she conveyed movement that counted; Jagde did fine, especially in soaring voice. As yet, he looks forward to more subtle and creditable stage movement; even with Liù who sang her heart out with love for him; sometimes, as perhaps Turandot, Leah Crocetto, Soprano, reaching for the moon with a voice to match, we want to ask – how can you love him?

Of course, Crocetto, sparked the stage with her sonorous soprano and its deliberate vowel-arched conviction… her suicide came quickly and aptly too – in the midst of those ringing and plaintive tones, we almost doubted it would come, this time around – but alas. The beautiful, sincere, loving woman left us to ponder not only unacknowledged love but another instance of a woman standing on her own two feet. At least she could hold herself back from feeding her Beloved to the hungry demon. And this wasn’t lost on Turandot either. Stemme was genuinely surprised to learn what loyalty, as well as love, could bring. Her gaze stayed riveted on the young Liù; only two actresses could stand as they did, if they followed the lines of their own character development.

Timur, bass Solomon Howard, didn’t also rise to the occasion until his very final note over Liu. There, he convinced beyond the idea; that note alone, with its resounding and honest beauty, offered shades of more to come.

Ping, Joo Won Kang, Pang, Julius Ahn, and Pong, Joel Sorensen,  performed like Commedia Dell Arte troopers, delightful in their range of antics, mercurial and full of charm. Their beautiful trio longing for home, however, never rose to the occasion; looks and some gestures, and even wistful music, did not carry us into the ether. The Emperor Altoun, played by Robert Brubaker, carried out his part as Son of Heaven well; 10,000 years is a lot to carry on one’s shoulders.

Leading the Charge

Needless to say, the production and design by David Hockney as gorgeous in its brilliant reds and blues as in the September SFO performance, served as glamorous container to this fairy-tale – it exhibited shades of the “Esclaramonde” with Joan Sutherland back in the 70s, that aquamarine lushness conveying “delicatesse,” but here, the bold and far-more foreshortened, multi-leveled scenes contrasted the Italian-Asian milieu versus the earlier French in boldness. The lighting design and execution by Thomas J. Munn and Gary Marder matched the pale turquoises, the pinks, the yellowish – green moon scenes, and along with the exultant reddish pink of the finale heightened attention. The costumes by Ian Falconer, were almost overly-gorgeous, but who wouldn’t want to parade around in one of those splendid colorful coats or hats or pantaloons? At least for a little while.

The chorus, under the experienced guidance of Ian Roberston performed well, even though at times they missed the uniform fullness the blending of many-into-one voice style might have done, especially when amplifying the weight of the whole, especially in Act one. Choreography by Lawrence Pech and Fights by Dave Maier extended the visual play.

The orchestra under Christopher Franklin, in his SFO debut performance, brought out Puccini’s lustrous and highly-textured score. With 73 pieces, he had riches to work with – including saxophones backstage, woodblocks, gongs, cymbals, marimba,  xylophone, chimes, and organ, the famous timpani enlarging the Eastern mode in this so Italian work. The first act seemed far too rushed; while the fate of the story depends so much on the mythic, none of it needed to be hurried. In fact, more magisterial weight could do much to convince us about the conviction people had about Turandot’s determination and the people’s beliefs. That way, the whole story becomes more credible, if we could say such a thing about this fable.

Stemme’s appearance and its necessary majestic introduction to us as more than myth compels that “ritardando,” and for good. The opera calls for credibility, as opera altogether does.  And why not? The lively responses of the audience at SFO on the opening of Stemme’s performance supplants all dismal forecasts for opera’s disappearance, even with operas not written in the past five to twenty years. And that is good. Opera is worth every minute, what with the hope it’ll awaken us not only to its richness of artistic merit and beauty, but in its essential invocation of those subtle connections among, human beings and history, story, and dream. If we have to sacrifice all that for a world of phones, emails, and the myriad forms of technological genius, we still must ask, is it worth it? Let’s hope not.