Sunday, April 24, 2016

Well-balanced drama and spectacularity on Sydney Harbour in Handa and Opera Australia's Turandot

Dan Potra's set design for Handa and Opera Australia's Turandot
Now in its fifth year, it was not a case of if, but how soon Puccini's last opera, Turandot, would dazzle Sydney Harbour as part of Handa and Opera Australia's non-perennial colonisation of a prominent position on its shores, a site on which acknowledgement is made each evening to the traditional indigenous inhabitants of the land. Here, with its urban harbour setting of almost unparalleled beauty, Sydney elevates opera to major-international-event status with its mega-build construction for an unforgettable entertainment experience while conjuring the theatre of opera as a unique civic spectacular (one its southern sister can never steal).

I attended the tail end of this month-long season of nightly performances that ring out to propel the art and awe of opera for which it takes regular opera-goers and purists, I presume, a leap of adjustment to acoustic limitations and obligatory spectacle. After last year's brazenly spectacular Aida, this year's Turandot moodily impresses with overall taste.

The experience starts with site designer Adrienn Lloyd's well-grafted layout with the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge in the background. Entering the site through a Chinese inspired gateway, an imposing seven-tiered pagoda of space-capsule-like appearances protected by thorny talons seems to float above a large cloud-like sculptured dragon's head. As the stage comes into view, the perspective widens to reveal set designer Dan Potra's raked stage incorporating a sliced cutout put to effective use, and on which it supports the pagoda to the right, then rises to a rear wall that connects the dragon's head to the left.

It's impressive, made more so throughout the performance by lighting designer Scott Zielinski's rich palette of lighting moods which capture the intimate and grand together with video designer Leigh Sachwitz and flora&faunavisions' visually poetic projections across the wall and tower. Costumes (also by Dan Potra), like the set, suggest a mixed Chinese aesthetic without pinpointing an exact period, altogether feeling dynamically ancient, near and beyond.

Arnold Rawls (Calaf), David Lewis (Emperor) and Daria Masiero (Turandot)
As the first notes emanate, a crane swings the Mandarin (Gennadi Dubinsky) into eye-popping proximity to the audience. The Emperor (David Lewis), too, is swung into view high above the stage on an oversized chunky couch/throne. That looked just a little too weird. Later, the dragon breathes fire as Prince Calaf (Arnold Rawls) pushes on it to announce his intentions to solve three riddles to win the right to wed Princess Turandot (Daria Masiero). And the icy princess makes her entrance high up in the pagoda, a vertical section of which a drawbridge-like section descends while supporting her as she puts each riddle to Calaf. Then, soon after Act 3 commences post interval, Rawls sings a moving account of "Nessun dorma" accompanied by wowing fireworks. No one was going to sleep through this showstopper.

But it all served the tale of the vengeful Princess Turandot well. In all, director and choreographer Chen Shi-Zheng makes adept use of the broad stage with well-balanced dramatic propulsion and spectacularity, without having the principal characters swamped by the chorus of commoners, who were generally relegated to the background. Executioners are aplenty while nine imperial guards seemed too few but their vigorous dance thrilled. Turandot's handmaids, numbering as many, in contrast danced with gracefully sweeping movement and precision to assist the drama.

One of the unfortunate sides of the outdoor staging is the unseen might and fine musicianship of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra beneath the stage under the leadership of Brian Castles-Onion. But Puccini's score (and the completed Act 3 by Franco Alfano after Puccini's death) is given thoughtful shape and energetic drive by Castles-Onion, who conducts with five years of experience below deck. Sound distortion can be attributed to electronic amplification which took some getting used to and it was often the lightly orchestrated and vocally gentle passages that worked more successfully. Serving the music and voice will always remain the biggest challenge for the future in engineering the finest auditory results.

As Princess Turandot, Daria Masiero (alternating in the role with Dragana Radakovic) spends most of her stage time holding onto dear life high in her impenetrable-looking pagoda but she commands the harbour with her magnificently dark and powerful soprano. In a glittering gown of ice-blue, Masiero plants statuesque steely imperiousness, then melts into love's embrace even though the two lead characters in this retelling of an ancient Persian tale lack depth.

Arnold Rawls as Calaf and Conal Coad as Timur
Arnold Rawls (alternating with Riccardo Massi) opens his performance with heroism and strength as Calaf, qualities that will melt the princess's heart, singing with robustness and determination despite a slightly raw edge occasionally filtering through. But how Rawls nailed an unforgettable "Nessun dorma" and powered the top range to finish with jaw-dropping length on the "ce" in "vincera". From this point on Rawls maintained vocal splendour and basked in passionate urgency as he eventually takes the princess with a long kiss.

As the pigtailed slave girl Liu, Eva Kong (alternating with Hyeseoung Kwon) makes her every bit a proletariat fighter and unswervingly brave in the face of torture as she protects the prince she has long secretly loved. Kong's consistently nuanced performance was matched by the beauty of her sweet and tender soprano, stealing the night and, deservedly, the audience's heart. Kong's shared moment with Masiero, as Turandot asks what gives her Liu strength, is one of the few poignantly intimate scenes and the two carry it off superbly until Liu's horrific death.

John Longmuir, Benjamin Rasheed and Luke Gabbedy blended better as a trio as the restless dancing, somewhat disenchanted ministers Pong, Pang and Ping, Conal Coad convincingly portrays the prince's blind and beaten old father, Timur, while Gennadi Dubinsky and David Lewis add vocal authority as the Mandarin and Emperor respectively.

But rarely being able to see the faces of the distant Opera Australia Chorus left a divide between them and their strongly voiced delivery. I wanted their mass to swell towards the fore-stage and see the origin of their rousing sound.

The spectacle is over for another year but the event's successful blend of music, drama, entertainment and creative splendour will certainly keep audiences coming back and see new arrivals eager to experience it all. It can only spell a win-win combination.


Production Photos: Prudence Upton

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