A STUPENDOUS PERFORMANCE OF THE ENIGMATIC TURANDOT FROM VANCOUVER OPERA

Giacomo Puccini, TURANDOT, Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simone (libretto), Amber Wagner (Turandot), Marcelo Puente (Calaf), Marianne Fiset (Liù), Alain Coulomb (Timur), Sam Chung (Emperor Altoum), Jonathan Beyer (Ping ), Julius Ahn (Pang), Joseph Hu (Pong), Peter Monaghan (Mandarin). Vancouvert Opera Orchestra, Jacquest Lacombe conductor, Vancouver Opera Chorus, Leslie Dala, conductor/director, Vancouver Opera Children’s Chorus, Kinza Tyrrell director, André Barbe and Renaud Doucet, set, costume design, direction and choreography. Queen Elizabeth Theatre, October 13, 2017.

 All photos by Tim Matheson

All photos by Tim Matheson

Turandot is one of those rare works with a botched ending that doesn’t spoil the whole. But it does make for a problem opera, one that calls forth radically differing responses: from Julian Budden in the New Grove—‘the summit of Puccini’s achievement’—to Joseph Kerman in his Opera as Drama—‘Nobody would deny that dramatic potential can be found in this tale. Puccini, however, did not find it; his music does nothing to rationalize the legend or illuminate the characters.’ Kerman’s criticism takes us beyond simply the ending, but it’s the ending that constitutes the opera’s major flaw: its failed resolution. Unconvincing in itself, it becomes contaminated by Liù’s torture and death, a catastrophic aesthetic miscalculation. Calaf, after watching Turandot torture Liù, driving her to suicide to save his life, barely pauses to upbraid her before heavily coming on to her. We thus lose faith in his moral substance. And why should we care that ‘love’ finally comes to the woman we watched brutally torture Liù only moments before? (To be fair, we should remind ourselves that Puccini did not compose this music—though the dramatic conception and the sketches were his.) So, while the ending of this opera makes many observers queasy, the work keeps on appearing on the world’s operatic stages. Something must satisfy.

What of Kerman’s charge more generally that Puccini’s music does nothing to illuminate the characters? I don’t think many would argue that characterization is Puccini’s strong point. What he does is present us at times with music of such overpowering beauty that we are persuaded to believe in the validity of the emotions even when the text alone would fail to convince us. A good example—for a time—is provided by Turandot. While her explanation for her cruel behaviour—that she is gaining revenge on men for the murder of a woman ancestor—doesn’t pass muster, the absolutely stunning aria in which she voices this—‘In questa reggia’—is enough to make you empathize with her obsession. And this obsession forms part of the thematic drive of the opera: the power struggle between the patriarchy and women, beginning with the initial assault by the patriarchy centuries previously, followed by Turandot’s wresting of power back into the hands of women, only to lose it when her riddles fail her. Calaf sees her dilemma and relinquishes power back to her when he proposes his counter-riddle, and presents her with the gift of his name the following dawn. Or so you would like to think. Unfortunately, it will take more than a kiss to work all this out, and neither character is up to it, morally challenged as they are. As for Liù, she is another of Puccini’s suffering women, whose only claim on us, besides her pretty music, is that her suffering comes from a self-sacrificial love barely motivated (a smile from Calaf years ago); not quite enough, I’m afraid, for anyone but a man of Puccini’s sensibilities.

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Nonetheless, the problematic characterizations do no fatal damage to the opera’s strengths, such as the consummate construction of the first two acts, which makes the trajectory through to Act 3 a compelling ride. This is so in part because the characters, while flat, are sufficiently realized to drive the conflict: the princess’ imperiousness and the hero’s determination-obsessives both. Also compelling is the music, displaying Puccini’s usual lyric power in this, his most advanced musical outing. Except for the finale, the music of Turandot, like much operatic music, fills in the cracks where they exist: in ‘In questa reggia’ (as mentioned) or in ‘Signore, ascolta’ and ‘Non piangere, Liù’, and in ‘Nessun dorma’. Or you have music that simply carries the story convincingly - no cracks - as in the agitated ensemble that closes Act 1 as the young prince strikes the gong to summon his fate (‘Ah! Per l’ultima volta’), or the surprisingly tender music used of the Masks’ reminiscences of home early in Act 2 (‘Ho una casa nell Hunan’), or in the powerful riddle scene closing the act (‘Straniero, ascolta’). The orchestration shows a masterly deployment of instruments, some unusual (xylophones, Chinese gongs, organ, saxophones). The whole musical texture of the piece, overlying Puccini’s late-19th-century lyric diatonicism, incorporates pungent use of different scales, such as bitonal, whole-tone, pentatonic, and modal. The ‘Chinese’ music is more thoroughly digested than the Japanesery in Madama Butterfly. For example, a Chinese folksong (‘Là sui monti dell’Est’) forms one of the major themes of the opera—that for the princess herself.

One of Turandot’s most noteworthy features is the extraordinary use of the chorus, or ‘choruses’ we had perhaps better say: the ubiquitous Chinese populace: fearful of the ice princess’s rule, resistant, complicit, bloodthirsty, compassionate, fickle—like all crowds. They are a major character, or set of characters, in the opera, commenting on events, trying to affect events, being affected by them, revealing the consequential ties between ruler and ruled. They are a pervasive sonic presence—now women, now men, now children, now onstage, now off, brought to us by inventive means and combined with evocative sounds and effects from the orchestra. Though always good at choruses and street sounds, nowhere else has Puccini presented anything so concentrated in dramatic force. And what wonderful sounds he concocts. There is the atmospheric invocation to the moon in Act 1 (‘Perchè tarda la luna?’), evoking the archetypal level: moon-Turandot-death—aloof, chaste, an object of fear and desire. There is the magical opening to Act 3, the populace fearfully wakeful under Turandot’s demand for the unknown prince’s name (‘Così comanda Turandot’).

Perhaps the boldest feature of the opera is the mixing of levels of representation: that of fairy-tale/myth and commedia dell’arte in the three Mask figures, Ping, Pang, and Pong. While they have been dismissed as an aesthetic mistake, I feel they work, both dramatically and musically, crazy though the latter is. They represent the reality principle, a dose of common sense, incredulity, and outrage at the goings on—just how unrealistic it all is, how foolish, and how little character-driven it needs to be; all that’s needed is stubborn perseverance. Their trio opening the second act (‘Olà, Pang! Olà, Pong!’) is a marvel of rhythmic pizzazz and shifting mood. A daring, though to some, not entirely successful mimetic intrusion.

Proof of how strong a work Turandot is, despite its ending, is on offer from Vancouver Opera. While they may not have provided the Act 3 transformation Puccini was striving for, they gave us a stupendous operatic performance right through all three acts. From the start, a tone of splendour and ceremony was established by the sets and costumes constructed at Minnesota Opera Shops. The direction was excellent, free-flowing with crowds, dancers, and actors providing grand spectacle in the larger scenes. All this—set, costumes, direction, and choreography—came from the Montreal team of André Barbe and Renault Doucet.

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But, of course, the star of the evening was Giacomo Puccini, that old seducer, whose score is absolutely ravishing, with great tunes and consummate orchestration, drawing us in to his world whether we quite believe everything or not. From the first jagged chords of Act 1 and the noise of the excited citizenry, we knew we were in for a sonically extraordinary evening, with a large orchestra (72 players) and chorus (52 singers) plus an offstage children’s chorus (12), under the firm control of conductor Jacques Lacombe. And that we were in for a rare visual experience, with the great red circle facing us, symbolizing the circle of life and transformation. We soon knew, too, that we were in the presence of a fine cast, from the proclamation of Peter Monagnan’s Mandarin, sung in an authoritative bass-baritone; a Timur with a strong, well-rounded bass in Alain Coulombe; a Liù of grace and charm in Marianne Fiset, who sang her ‘Signore, ascolta’ with a beautiful legato, precise articulation, and effortless high notes; and a Calaf in Marcelo Puente, who showed his finely controlled tenor with its ringing high notes in ‘Non piangere, Liù’.

Off to a most satisfactory start, though I have a couple of quibbles. The invocation to the moon, which should be a night scene, was done in full light, with the orchestra a little too loud and energetic for any sense of mystery to emerge. Then there was the curious casting of the Prince of Persia, played by Bodhi Cutler, a little boy rather than a man, even though his dying cry of ‘Turandot!’ is sung offstage by a robust adult male! And what is a child doing as a suitor to a woman? Strange choice.

Act 2, on the other hand, was perfect, an act of overwhelming theatrical force. The first scene was highly inventive in direction, the Masks constantly moving about, being very funny when called for, but with no sense of intrusive stage business. The Ping, Pang, and Pong of Jonathan Breyer, Julius Ahn, and Joseph Hu were very characterful, sung with precision and panache. A thoroughly satisfying Scene 1. But it was Scene 2 that took your breath away. The set was spectacular and absolutely matched by the action—the movement ceremonial, the choreography stunning, the costumes sumptuous. Amber Wagner’s ‘In questa reggia’ was revelatory, carried by her powerful and expressive voice, bringing out the hurt and anger inherent in her story, navigating its thorny path with ease. You would have sworn the aria had been written for her. Mr Puente’s Calaf held his own, making of the riddle duet a powerful confrontation. Sam Chung made an excellent Emperor Altoum, set way at the back of the stage, his voice old and quavery—not bad for a young tenor on the rise. The orchestra here stood out, playing with strength and finesse, doing justice to the intricacy of Puccini’s score, articulating every note, making every instrumental contribution clean and clear. Here and elsewhere the chorus was fantastic, adding great excitement to an already highly charged production.

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And the orchestra continued its fine contribution in the opening to Act 3, giving a refined sense of the nocturnal magic of ‘Così comanda Turandot’, and leading into a first-rate ‘Nessun dorma’ by Mr Puente, who sang with style and ardour, hitting his high notes thrillingly. This act, of course, has the problems I outlined earlier, which no production can overcome. Ms Fiset sang with lovely legato and acted movingly, giving us an exquisite ‘Tanto amore segreto’. But the poignancy of Liù’s situation only made apparent a further problem I had forgotten until watching the sequence of mourning over ‘poor little Liù’: I felt highly manipulated. Now, all artists manipulate - it’s called ‘rhetoric’ - but there is something lip-smacking about this sequence, as though composer and librettists had said, ‘Let’s torture Liù so that we can relish the pathos of it.’ And how quickly she’s forgotten! This sense of being manipulated did not make me amenable to any attempt at ‘resolution’ or ‘transformation’ in Turandot.

This despite the fact that the production did attempt it, doing its level best with what it had. The direction, blocking, and stage movement of the lovers in Act 3 was natural throughout, with Turandot’s claim of ambivalence toward Calaf from the very beginning played up (though the girl had a strange way of showing it throughout). There was even a slight hand gesture from Turandot to this effect at the end of Act 2. Wagner and Puente sang their duet with great conviction - no faulting them for half-heartedness. Particularly effective was the moment when Turandot strode purposefully up to Calaf, planting a kiss on him, removing from this scene that sense of male conquest that is asked for by the libretto and pervades the hero’s language throughout.

Altogether, Vancouver Opera offered a stupendous production of a spectacular opera, as attested by the sense of exhilaration that suffused the house at the end of the evening.

 

© Harvey De Roo 2017