Opera Australia has wheeled out Graeme Murphy’s production of Turandot once again, and though it’s now nearly 30 years old there’s still plenty to like about its dramatic movement, interpretation of space and splashes of colour. A talented trio of internationals interpret the principal roles, including Lise Lindstrom. Surprisingly, her Turandot is vocally tepid at first, but ultimately the American dramatic soprano sweeps all before her.

Lise Lindstrom and Graeme Macfarlane in Opera Australia’s Turandot. Photo © Jeff Busby

Puccini’s last opera, Turandot premiered in Milan in 1926 (two years after his death; Franco Alfano composed the final scene based on Puccini’s sketches). Set in Imperial China, it centres on the title character, a man-hating princess who poses riddles for her suitors. Many have tried, failed and been executed, yet Calaf, the son of exiled King Timur, presents himself for the test. He ignores the protests of his father, the slave Liù who loves Calaf from afar, and the Emperor’s ministers, who are weary of the chaos caused by Turandot.

Lindstrom is in her element as the icy princess. She is a still, imperious figure staring down her nose throughout, but for the confused tenderness of Turandot’s capitulation – a creaky, patriarchal turn of events that the soprano somehow almost renders believable. Although Lindstrom’s voice lacked fire initially, it grew in suppleness, strength and precision, soaring with increasing splendour through Act III, recalling her previous, triumphant appearances in Melbourne as Brünnhilde for Opera Australia’s 2016 Ring.

As Calaf, Walter Fraccaro is confident both vocally and dramatically (apart from a nervous confirmation of footing before his show-stopping aria – no surprise given he had to ascend some dimly lit black-on-black steps at the vital moment!). A classic Italian tenor, Fraccaro’s voice balances power with agility, lovely tone and emotional nuance – most notably in that showstopper, Nessun dorma, which was a triumph of dynamics and heroically sustained big notes. Bravo!

Karah Son, Richard Anderson and Walter Fraccaro in Opera Australia’s Turandot. Photo © Jeff Busby

Korean soprano Karah Son’s Liù makes the most of some of the opera’s most beautiful music. Although her voice’s often metallic edge won’t suit some ears, pure, shapely top notes and emotional phrasing, plus looks and gestures that further convey her character’s bravery and hopeless, selfless love, make Son’s performance a highlight of the night.

Bass Richard Anderson plays the blind, troubled Timur with poignant gravitas, while Christopher Hillier, Virgilio Marino and John Longmuir delight as the ministerial trio. Their opening of Act II is a showcase of ensemble performance, singing with great control and focus even when they’re reclined, swayed and carried about in lengths of fabric by silent minions in this gently comic scene.

The remaining soloists’ roles, including Graeme Macfarlane’s Emperor, high atop a massive golden robe, are underdeveloped – unlike the bare-chested beefcake playing the silent executioner and his assistants. The Opera Australia Chorus are as one in the fluid, energetic Act I crowd scenes, then sing with massed voices soaring gloriously in celebration of the Emperor and, ultimately, love in the two acts following. The Opera Australia Children’s Chorus charms with clear yet dreamily evocative voices as they parade around the stage.

Christopher Hillier, John Longmuir and Virgilio Marino in Opera Australia’s Turandot. Photo © Jeff Busby 

Conductor Christian Badea leads Orchestra Victoria through Puccini’s rich and varied score, conveying immense drama without ever resorting to bombast and keeping its many moments of overt Chinoiserie in check.

Murphy’s production also reins in Turandot’s outdated Orientalism by creating a streamlined fantasy of Imperial China with giant fans, long, long sleeves and draped figures gliding across the stage, sometimes literally. It’s seamlessly paced and has an assured sense of space, both in scenes of intimacy and spectacle. Kristian Fredrikson’s design is fundamental to this production’s success. In dark, earthy colours and splashes of regal gold, red and white, lit with either forbidding gloom and sunrise intensity by John Drummond Montgomery, both sets and costumes balance the elegantly monumental with insubstantial materials given bold form. The latter is most appealingly displayed in the varied use of fabric, which unfolds, swirls and billows dramatically.

Appealing except for the taught yellow fabric waved about by those silent minions in the opera’s final moments. It’s a daft blot on the otherwise majestic conclusion to an increasingly moving, and visually and vocally exciting Act III, which in itself makes this is a Turandot well worth experiencing.

Opera Australia’s Turandot is at the State Theatre, Melbourne, until December 6


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