Teatro dell’Opera di Roma 2021-22 Review: Turandot

Michael Fabiano Shines in Role Debut as Calaf Alongside Oksana Dyka

By Mauricio Villa
(Credit: Fabrizio Sansoni / TOR)

Ten days after La Accademia di Santa Cecilia performed a concert version of “Turandot,” Il teatro dell’opera di Roma presented a new production of Puccini’s last opera, directed by the versatile Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei.

Oksana Lyniv conducted the performance which starred Oksana Dyka in the titular role: both are Ukrainian artists, and in a show of support, the theatre’s main façade was illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The production was the role debut for Michael Fabiano, who stepped in at very short notice to sing Calaf. The opera featured only Puccini’s music, something rarely done, concluding with Timur’s lament after Liu’s death.

Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka is no stranger to the role of Turandot, having performed the part in many theatres, from The Metropolitan Opera in New York to Teatro Real in Madrid. Her experience shows in the security and calm that she exudes in such a demanding role. Dyka has a voluminous, lyrical voice that is becoming spinto. She possesses a secure and well-projected lower and middle register and thunderous ringing top notes. The volume and projection of her voice are so astonishing that her voice carries over the orchestra in forte with no problem, being audible at every moment. She performed with fury and anger her terrible entrance aria, “In questa reggia,” which moves constantly between high A and B natural. Here Dyka showed her round, strong middle voice and her voluminous ringing high notes, crowning the aria with a rotund secure high C. The ‘riddles scene’ kept the soprano in the high tessitura, and Dyka showed control and security in the intervals, which maintain the vocal line above the stave, emitting ringing B flats. She inflected in “Figlio del Cielo” to show her interpretation of the ‘ice princess’ as both dictatorial and angry, but also fragile and vulnerable. She colored her voice and sang mezza voce, making a contrast with the two fortissimo high Cs clearly audible above the orchestra and chorus performing in forte. As the opera concluded with Liu’s death, the soprano was relegated to only a few spare lines in Act three, which severely shortened the role.

“An American Singer Who Sounds Like an Italian Tenor.”

American tenor Michael Fabiano had the tremendous challenge of debuting Calaf in a theater that has a strong tradition with Puccini’s posthumous title. The opera has been regularly performed here since 1926 by some of the greatest Italian tenors of the 20th century, including Lauri Volpi and Mario del Monaco, Nicola Martinucci, Giuseppe Giacomini, and Marcello Giordani. But the tenor conquered Rome’s audience with his beautiful, expressive, and voluminous voice. Fabiano has immaculate Italian diction, as well as the ability to sing legato even in the higher register—something difficult for a big voice like his. A certain commentary was overheard again and again among the audience during the interval and after the performance: “He is an American singer who sings like an Italian tenor.”

Fabiano delivered an ardent portrayal of the ‘unknown prince’ with his vitality and stage presence. Tenors who perform Calaf have the unenviable task of singing high notes while the orchestra plays a climactic forte. But Fabiano’s voice is big, strong, and well-projected, and he, therefore, sang exciting, ringing B flats on the word “Turandot.” His voice has a natural projection and unbelievable volume, so the tenor could sing all the heroic lines of Act one without pushing the sound to be heard. He showed his delicacy and his long legato fraseo at the beginning of “Non piangere Liu,” with an additional three ringing B flats over the orchestra, soloist, and choir.

His voice is so suitable for this repertoire that even the high C that the tenor sings alongside the soprano at the end of “In questa reggia” was strong and perfectly audible. His interpretation of the ‘riddles scene’ was impetuous and arrogant, and it was reflected in his voice. He also had the flexibility to sound gentle in the lines “il mio nome non sai,” which ended with a whispering mezza voce in “all’alba moriró.” His famous third act aria “Nessun Dorma” sounded lyrical, with a perfect fraseo on the high A naturals of lines like “sull a tua boca lo dirò,” crowned by a ringing B natural and a final A natural which carried easily above the orchestra in fortissimo in the final “Vincerò.”

As with Dyka, his role was severely shortened due to the final duet being cut, and he just sang a few spare lines after the aria. It might seem hard to believe that a tenor could deliver such a strong performance when debuting the role as a last-minute replacement, but as Fabiano said to OperaWire: “I am constantly working and studying roles which I might sing in the future, and when this chance to debut Calaf in Rome came up, I felt I was ready even though I did not intend to debut this role anytime soon.”

Emotional Performances

Italian soprano Francesca Dotto played the tormented servant Liu. She possesses a dark, lyrical instrument with a marked vibrato that increases as she rises in her tessitura. Her breath support and control enabled her to deliver an incredible crescendo diminuendo in the B flat of her first act aria “Signore ascolta,” which she sang with expansive legato lines. Her character became the story’s protagonist, as the opera finished with Liu’s sacrifice and suicide. Dotto took this chance to make a dramatic interpretation of her second act aria, “Tu che di gel sei cinta,” showing strength and determination and delivering a very moving performance. The audience greatly rewarded her at the curtain call.

The interpretation of Timur by Italian bass Antonio di Matteo was accurate. Despite a plausible characterization of an old man, his voice lacked the vocal gravitas needed to sound like an old man. Instead, he sounded young and sang with modest volume. Di Matteo’s interpretation of Timur’s final lament was very emotional nonetheless.

Ukrainian conductor Oksana Lyniv reinforced the heroic timbrical sounds of the score by playing extremely loud in climactic moments, where only the voices of Dyka and Fabiano could be heard. Lyniv played with ritardando/accelerando, often creating an amazing sense of tension along with crescendos to fortissimo for the several musical climaxes of the score. However, the choir sounded far off and had a distinct lack of power, and its positioning—spread around the set—did not help at all.

Rehearsals, Staging, and Costumes Presented Challenges

The production seemed to have been afflicted by a lack of rehearsals. This greatly affected the Italian baritone Alessio Verna, tenor Enrico Iviglia and tenor Pietro Picone in their roles of Ping, Pang and Pong. Their voices did not meld nicely, with Iviglia’s bright voice clearly ringing out over those of his two colleagues. There were several musical mistakes with false entrances and problems with following the orchestra’s rhythm. The dancers, too, gave an impression of a lack of rehearsal time. The troupe had real difficulties dancing to the correct beat. It really looked a mess. Choreography that was supposed to be danced as an ensemble had dancers out of synch with one another. It is always sad to hear an audience so strongly express their disappointment in a performance at the curtain call.

The versatile Chinese artist Ai Weiwei designed the staging, the sets, the costumes and the video projections, presenting an interesting show by mixing tradition with modernity. The set, as seen on the orchestra level, was a broken terrain of rock-like formations full of stairways and elevated places. It reminded me of the planet Krypton, famous as Superman’s home world. Some portions turned and moved at certain moments, creating unlimited stage configuration. The set presented wonderful lighting possibilities, and light designer Peter van Praet created powerful atmospheres and very theatrical visual effects.

Weiwei’s set was not designed solely to appeal to those with a low, center view; from the upper galleries, you could see that it formed a world map in pieces. The back of the stage had a big screen where projections were shown throughout the opera. These were in constant motion and showed things like railway tracks, highways, hospitals, riots, fights, hospitals, floods—all manner of human disasters, alongside familiar shots of Venice, New York, Paris, and countless other world cities. However, from the second act onwards, the projections became more abstract.

Weiwei opted for an exaggerated stillness in his staging to the point that it looked like a semi-staged production in which the projections were the protagonists. His costume design was inspired, imaginative and original, and ranged from the traditional costumes of Timur, Liu and Calaf to the elaborate costume of Turandot. Hers was some kind of chrysalis in the first act, a butterfly in the second act and a spider in the third. The costumes of the two warriors who torture Liu looked like a hybrid of science-fiction movie monsters, the Xenomorph and Predator, and Weiwei’s imagination saw Calaf weighed down by a gigantic frog on his back during the first act. Unfortunately, this creative costuming choice caused trouble for the tenor, who seemed very uncomfortable in the costume during the first act.

Teatro dell’opera di Roma’s “Turandot” was multidisciplinary and entertaining. But did this performance do justice to Puccini’s oriental drama? Did it provide a clear retelling of the plot with its meaning preserved intact? The answer to this is, unfortunately, ‘no.’ It was a great theatrical experience with an incredibly imaginative use of the space, lighting, costumes, and projections, but it had little to do with Puccini’s “Turandot.” The audience were happy with the production nonetheless, as shown by the warm reception which the creative team received at their curtain call.


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