Drunk on a wild cocktail of colour and extravagant visual detail, San Diego Opera’s new production of Puccini’s final opera Turandot, directed by Keturah Stickann, appropriately eschews aggrandisement and sets about telling its story for what it is - a dark fantastical tale with a part measure of frivolity.
|Act One scene from San Diego Opera's Turandot|
For this purpose, the creative designers contribute enormously in realising its exotic and mystical ancient Chinese world. Allen Charles Klein’s set design incorporates a large contorted dragon on which a pearl descends and Princess Turandot’s magnified eye magically spies from. A series of slanting steps appear lotus leaf-like, not an easy incline to navigate across, perhaps suggesting keeping the masses restricted in their movements. Willa Kim’s costumes are a riot of freely interpreted Chinese influences with a Cirque du Soleil vibrancy. And Lucas Krech’s punchy lighting begins in cool hues and eventually turns on a blazing spectrum of colour as the princess’s ice-heartedness melts away and the dragon within is tamed.
Around 100 performers make up the mix on stage and Stickann musters and directs them with ardour, outdone only by a troupe of acrobatics who, in turn, are outshined by the three muck about imperial ministers Ping, Pang and Pong. And the four major leads - Lise Lindstrom, Carl Tanner, Angel Joy Blue and Brian Kontes - did a wonderful job at meeting the challenges Puccini wrote for their roles.
|Lise Lindstrom as Turandot|
The whole forms a potent brew in which Turandot proclaims she is of the heavens and the three ‘P’s sing out to Calàf - the foreign prince who solves three cryptic riddles to win her in marriage - that she doesn’t really exist. Turandot may very well represent simply a symbol of entrapment and dominance, making the lofty monument she is often depicted as quite sensible after all. More softly approached, Stickann’s Turandot floats her imperious self amongst her people early on during the riddle ceremony that takes place well into Act 2 when she makes her first earthly and vocal appearance. It works well in setting up the frisson between the gallant but idiotically besotted Calàf, realised exceptionally by an aggressively passionate and the nobly-voiced tenor of Carl Tanner, and a formidable Turandot in the hands of star soprano Lise Lindstrom.
Calàf is ascribed the lion’s share of vocal output, including the popularly enjoyed “Nessun dorma”, a reflection on his vow to reveal the secret of his name to Turandot as he awaits dawn, believing she will melt into his passion. As full of rich chiaroscuro and stirringly sung as it was by Tanner, it was a mere fraction of his overall exceptional performance. The impetuous prince in love, an empathetic heart for his father Timur, the deposed King of Tartary, and genuine grief at the loss of the slave girl Liù, Tanner calibrated both voice and acting astutely. And never could he not unleash the volume to sail over the full force of everything surrounding him on stage and in the pit.
|Carl Tanner as Calàf|
Apart from slicing the air in terrifying and subtlety increasing force for each of the three riddles, Lindstrom, too, could garner inner might and produce the dizzying highly placed notes in deeply cut-sapphire succession, something she has perfected dozens and dozens of times on many of the world’s esteemed stages. Added to that was an armoury of gestures showing compete immersion in Turandot’s world, including a long and tense frozen stare she casts on Calàf as she shows the first hint of attraction.
Luscious soprano Angel Joy Blue, in her house debut, sang out a rapturous pair of arias as the loyal and in-love Liù in a beautifully nuanced performance. Brian Kontes used his appealingly shaped gravelly bass to great effect as old Timur. Tenors Marco Nisticò and Joseph Gaines infused a little camp lightheartedness to their ministry as Ping and Pang alongside baritone Joel Sorensen as a slightly less flamboyant Pong although, as the disenchanted trio, their Italian diction headed into loutishness and timing often waned.
|Marco Nisticò as Ping, Joseph Gaines as Pang and Joel Sorensen as Pong|
The massive San Diego Opera Chorus sang emphatically, as most of the evening was, although there were occasions when the sound was overwrought. On the other hand, and they don’t sing for long but, if they kept impressing any longer, the children’s chorus would have easily melted Turandot’s icy heart themselves with their deliciously silken tone.
Conductor Valerio Galli rather cracked the whip on tempo so bar time, no pun intended, came around quickly. Twice! Nevertheless, the expertly played soundscape portrayed the score’s thrilling textures and eruptions of gusto excellently. In the end, the sum of all the parts came together admirably as Calàf saved himself from beheading, Turandot melted into his arms with a kiss and the contrived exoticism added its own spectacularity. Give it a great sing and that’s about as much as you’d expect from Turandot. Stickann manages to add a smidgen more for your viewing pleasure.
San Diego Opera
Until March 4th 2018
Production Photos: J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson