If you are in need of confirmation of opera’s ability to thrill and entertain on a lavish scale, book yourself a ticket to Opera Australia’s Puccini’s Turandot, currently playing at the Sydney Opera House. It’s a cracking night out, and a perfect antidote to these dark, pestilence-filled days.
Graeme Murphy’s spectacular production of Puccini’s last, unfinished work had its first outing way back in 1990, not that you could tell from this fresh-feeling revival, directed by Shane Placentino. Ever the choreographer, Murphy takes his cues from the music, using highly stylised movement, tableaux and gesture to tell an ancient Silk Road tale of a Chinese princess’s descent from imperious disdain to human love at the hands of an impetuous foreign prince. Kristian Fredrikson’s captivating set and costumes, lavish yet lucid, provide a perfect visual context for Murphy’s directorial vision. It was clear from the opening-night performance that Placentino and his cast had prepared thoroughly, with a near flawless revival staging.
In many ways, the chorus is the main character in Turandot, rising in unison to acclaim their emperor and responding with simple humanity to the excesses of the larger-than-life Turandot and Calàf. As always, the Opera Australia chorus did not disappoint, providing heft when required and subtlety whenever the score allowed (which is not often).
The slave-girl Liù, servant to the ageing King of Tartery, Timur, is a plum role. Puccini gives her the chance to win the audience’s hearts with her first act aria Signore, ascolta before Timur’s son Calàf has had time to establish himself and before the icy Turandot has even appeared on stage. Soprano Karah Son made the most of every moment with a beautifully clear tone, strength and warmth. Of the three main solo parts, hers was the performance most in sync with Murphy’s direction. She teamed up well with David Parkin’s Timur, full of dignity and pathos.
Tenor Yonghoon Lee, familiar to Opera Australia audiences as well as in many of the world’s great houses, was in fine form as Prince Calàf. His imposing stage presence and vocal power are perfectly suited to the role and he managed his performance beautifully to ensure that the big moments in the opera were fully realised. (I was sitting just a few rows from the stage, and I don’t think my eardrums will ever be the same after his Nessun Dorma.) Lee directs his energies and attention very much to the voice and optimising vocal production, and one wishes that he had a greater range of gestures and was able to better integrate stylistically with Murphy’s production, but these are quibbles in what was otherwise a very strong performance.
Soprano Lise Lindstrom is hugely impressive as the indomitable Turandot, and she managed to get the most from what is arguably a largely thankless title role. Her (literally) breath-taking entrance aria In questa reggia was full of steel and haughtiness and she parried well with Lee’s Calàf in the riddle scene which follows. But it was in the final ten minutes of the opera (arranged by Puccini’s student Franco Alfano after the master died in 1924), when Turandot’s almost impossible volte-face from perpetual virgin to conquered lover occurs, that Lindstrom came in to her own. With fine vocal and stage acting Lindstrom had us suspending our disbelief, literally breaking free of the set’s comic-book surrounds by coming downstage and revealing Turandot’s hitherto well-hidden capacity for human emotion.
The three courtiers Pong, Pang and Ping (Virgilio Marino, Iain Henderson and Luke Gabbedy) have some of the most interesting and charming music in the opera, blending their voices in endlessly inventive ways as they lament their lot as servants to a capricious princess. From time to time one felt that the high quality of the vocal performances was placed at risk by the complexity and physical exertion required by Murphy/Placentino’s direction. It was in notable contrast to Calàf, who mostly just had to stand there and sing.
Puccini wrote Turandot for a large orchestra, with exotic orchestration to reflect the oriental storyline. Under conductor Renato Palumbo’s clear but unobtrusive leadership, the Opera Australia Orchestra provided colour, volume and style whenever required. One perhaps wished for a larger brass section in the opera’s big moments, but under current funding arrangements I guess one should be happy to have an orchestra at all.
The opening-night audience was clearly grateful for the opportunity to hear such a fine performance. As the applause died down an audience member behind me turned to her two grandchildren, perhaps attending their first opera, to ask if they had enjoyed themselves. “Oh yes!” was the unequivocal response. With discounted tickets available to most upcoming performances, perhaps Turandot is the perfect occasion for you to introduce your grandchildren to the world of opera?
Opera Australia’s Turandot plays at the Sydney Opera House until 14 March.