Finely sung revival stays with you far longer than a Chinese takeaway.

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
June 24, 2015

For the musically minded, Turandot remains Puccini’s magnum opus. His last and greatest work, its impressionistic score laced with Chinese gongs and woodblocks, it shows the master of verismo pushing further into unexplored musical territory than ever before in his quest for novelty and a good story. Famously unfinished at his death in 1924, the awkward lurch from the tragedy of suicide to the triumph of love in the final scene has endlessly frustrated, yet this gloriously tuneful, glittering icon of operatic art holds its own regardless, with memorable melodies, daring harmonies and more than a little help from its big hit – the ubiquitous Nessun dorma.

Lise Lindstrom (Turandot) and Yonghoon Lee (Calàf)

There’s not much too that hasn’t been written about Graeme Murphy’s excellent choreographically envisaged staging since it first aired at the Sydney Opera House back in 1991. However, it’s worth taking a moment to refresh our minds about what turns a fine production into a repertoire mainstay and why it’s likely to be with us for a few years yet. Firstly, Murphy doesn’t try to contemporise, understanding that a timeless tale that can be anything from Persian fairytale to commedia del arte can sometimes benefit from a timeless solution.

Kristian Fredrikson’s essentially spare set, with its eye-catching, burnished movable stage elements and its sumptuous costumes, is complemented by John Drummond Montgomery’s atmospheric lighting to produce a stylised visual Chinese fantasy with nods toward theatrical techniques from across southeast Asia. Upon that canvas, Murphy paints his enticing pictures using often basic, yet highly effective movements, to create a series of memorable scenic moments while leaving more complex physical sequences to a group of black clad stagehands reminiscent of the kuroko of Japanese Noh theatre. It’s this mix of simple and sophisticated that lends the production its air of class and has ensured that it hasn’t dated over what is now 25 years.

Hyeseoung Kwon (Liù) and Yonghoon Lee (Calàf)

Memorable moments abound: the swaying, swirling chorus with frequently little more than a canny Mexican wave to go on; the first appearance of Turandot herself at height from within the folds of a giant fan; the tiny head of the emaciated Emperor atop the gilded beehive that constitutes his robes (and conceals his bloodthirsty progeny); ribbons to represent streams of blood contrasting with celebratory flags; the dazzling choreography of the three masks – all add up to a highly watchable production which seldom detracts from the focus of attention and frequently enhances the action thanks to Murphy’s sensitive eye for the full picture.

In this splendidly cast revival it’s the Opera Australia chorus we see first and who deserve to head the list of plaudits. Turandot is one of the great choral operas and here Puccini is done proud with firm, detailed singing ranging from subtle pianissimos to swelling, thrilling fortes. The serried ranks are always on the dramatic money with pinpoint diction and attention to mood, despite the demands of Murphy’s stage action. The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra too are on fine form under Christian Badea who urges them on to great effect. It’s a brisk reading that never feels rushed, but still could use a little breathing space here and there, especially in the weighty orchestral climaxes.

Luke Gabbedy (Ping), John Longmuir (Pong) and Graeme Macfarlane (Pang)

The principal cast is without a weak link. The South Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee sings a superb Calaf, his stentorian delivery producing decibels that belie his slim frame. It’s a dark, warm voice – think Domingo or Kaufmann – yet with plenty of heft and a ringing top that pins you to your seat as he blasts out the vertiginous cries of “Turandot” and reaches his long-held “vincerò” in that famous aria. His pacing is exemplary throughout, and apart from some occluded vowel sounds in certain parts of the voice, his diction is masterly. In a hard role to find a deal of dramatic nuance, he communicates well and has genuine sympathetic appeal, though his acting at times relies on a few too many stock gestures.

American soprano Lise Lindstrom has made a name for herself in the role of the ice-princess and here you can see why. Matching Lee decibel for decibel, she tackles the taxing tessitura fearlessly, and her clean, clear tone proves more than capable of cutting through an orchestral tutti or riding a full-throttle chorus. It’s a commanding voice and an equally commanding presence, whether cowing the peasants or setting tenorial passions on fire (it helps that she is anything but the hatchet-faced helden-soprano that sometimes haunts the role). On the spitfire side at first, as she warms into the third act she finds a more lyrical line to the voice and her character becomes increasingly intriguing. She will be OA’s Brünnhilde in the 2016 Melbourne Ring and on this showing should be quite something.

Jud Arthur (Timur) and Hyeseoung Kwon (Liù)

Another South Korean-born singer, Hyeseoung Kwon, is the slave-girl Liù and is now a near-perfect exponent of the role. Singing with grace, passion and skill, she is unafraid of those tricky pianissimo high notes and creates a beautifully tragic figure building from passionate helpmate to selfless martyr for love. As her sightless charge, the aged Timur, New Zealander Jud Arthur is spot on. Looking like Moses on a good hair day and singing with rock-solid tone, he convinces from first to last.

The three Royal masks are equally impressive – both vocally and when it comes to mastering Murphy’s engaging, fast-paced blocking. As the duplicitous Ping, Luke Gabeddy puts in a really notable performance, singing with warmth and idiomatic style whether it’s eulogising his bamboo-clad country estate or ordering a corpse to be summarily carted away. Graeme Macfarlane is an experienced Pang, offering an engaging characterisation as well as displaying a nicely blended voice, while John Longmuir is luxury casting as Pong, his light lyric tenor adding lustre to the top line in Puccini’s scintilating series of trios (has anyone ever written so many good tunes back-to-back?) Benjamin Rasheed is similarly classy as a clear-as-a-bell quavering Emperor Altoum.

Erik Chmielewski as The Executioner Pu Tin Pao

On a final note, it’s nice to see a considerable constituent of Asian singers in the cast – from principals, to chorus, to dancers – matching Australia’s population demographics and proving that The King and I wasn’t a one off. A fine start to the Sydney winter season then, whetting the appetite for La Traviata, Don Carlos and Sir David McVicar’s new Marriage of Figaro to come.

Turandot is at the Sydney Opera House until August 28.

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