There seems a link between authoritarian regimes and spectacular, showy displays. The extraordinary visual experience in this opera about a cruel ancient Chinese dictatorship evokes the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony.
The Peking of Turandot is a world of cruelty and violence, ineffectually ruled by a god-emperor whose vengeful daughter’s mission is slaying hapless admirers who fail her IQ test.
It succeeds as a grand piece of theatre. The lighting by John Drummond Montgomery is as impressive as anything you will see on stage, and combined with the late Kristian Fredrikson’s design makes for an unbelievably rich variety of visual effects, with floating moons, giant Buddha heads, dragons, tongues of blood and ephemeral wraiths.
Director Graeme Murphy (former artistic director of the Sydney Dance Company) has staged an epic production, and one must admire the work of Kim Walker and Christopher Dawes in so successfully restaging Murphy’s original creation for Opera Queensland.
The production demands much of its singers. Kenneth Collins as emperor hovers six or seven meters above the populace for all his pronouncements (wearing an Asterix-like hat). Turandot herself is elevated to three meters as she glides among the peasantry. The toughest task is given to the charming trio of philosopher-bureacrats Ping Pang and Pong (Lucas de Jong, Virgilio Marino and Vernard Hull), who survive the challenge of keeping their vocal lines while being carried about in hammocks and then dragged around on stage.
The international character of opera and Brisbane’s good fortune in having a share of it are evident: the superb cast of principals is drawn from the United States, the Ukraine, Russia and Korea as well as Australia.
Cynthia Makris (seen here two years ago in Nabucco) as the psychologically damaged Turandot sings with great power and control. Her voice in her great “In questa reggia” aria seemed somewhat metallic, but it softens with her character in Act 3, where the love duet is truly marvellous.
I loved the beautiful soaring tenor of Marian Talaba as Calaf, the suitor to Turandot who puts his life on the line in taking up the challenge to answer her three riddles. His “Nessun dorma” is fabulous.
Korean-born Hye Seoung Kwon is the discovery of the night. As the slave girl Liù she sings a touchingly beautiful Act 1 aria “Signore ascolta”, and sings and acts with lyric intensity in her self-sacrificing Act 3 scene. Gennadi Dubinsky as her blind master gives a strong bass counterpoint in their scenes together, while Queensland-born baritone Peter Axford is a forceful Mandarin.
Turandot is an opera offering much chorus work and this is a big chorus more than 60 adult singers plus another 20 children. They certainly have an impressive combined output and have been vocally well marshalled by Richard Lewis, assisted by Jillianne Stoll, in handling the difficult multi-strand score. The dozen dancers add a further exotic element to the production.
We get a strong sound too from OQ’s augmented orchestra under Peter Robinson, which powerfully handles the somewhat more modernistic music of Puccini’s last (and incomplete) work. At times the orchestra wins out in the battle with soloists, but overall the balance is fine in what must be a most difficult challenge.
To add to the mix there’s beefcake on display with the executioner’s muscular and scantily-dressed guards, and cheesecake in the form of erotic female temptresses among the dancers.
Turandot is one of a clutch of early 20th century operas (like Strauss’s Salome) featuring blood-thirsty anti-heroines perhaps a reaction to the previous century’s taste for romantic but doomed heroines. (One would hate to think it a pre-emptive strike against the emerging women’s rights movement!)
The downside of Turandot is that one can have little empathy for the major principals and this production is of the form where one is amazed rather than moved. The hero’s attraction to the villainess seems most unlikely, and if ever a sequel were to be written I hope it would include a good dose of pre-marriage counselling for Turandot. Mind you, Calaf doesn’t treat Liù with what we might call a duty of care, so perhaps Turandot and Calaf deserve each other.