Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Decades on, Graeme Murphy's Turandot for Opera Australia continues to live with persuasive dynamism

Hoping to solve three riddles that would give them the right to marry a notoriously ice-hearted but beautiful princess, umpteen princes have failed and lost their heads even before the curtain goes up on Puccini’s final opera, Turandot. It would seem that Opera Australia’s near 30 year-old production from director and choreographer Graeme Murphy has gone through as many revivals. I thought I’d had enough of it but it’s still living on healthily with a wealth of attributes to treat thousands of newcomers who’ll walk away with the memory of its smartly conceived, vividly exotic and sometimes playful spectacle. 

Graeme Macfarlane as the Emperor
and Amber Wagner as Turandot 
Glowingly obvious is the deep respect revival director Kim Walker shows for Murphy’s original and masterful touch. What better way to iron out the story’s peculiarities and far-fetched nature than to bind it with an enigmatic and stylistic interpretation that eschews realism. Every scene bristles with persuasive dynamism in which nothing is left to chance. John Drummond Montgomery’s lighting adds ongoing intrigue to Kristian Fredrikson's sets that rely heavily on decorative motifs and an array of billowing robes as part of an inventive take on ancient Chinese class-divided costumes. Fantasy is elevated to such gorgeously crafted and oblique picture-book detail that trying to find faults hinting on cultural misappropriation is unproductive. 

Long before the titular character sings a note, a strong, magnetic chorus essentially carries the drama forward and the huge contingent of mandarins, dignitaries and commoners of the Opera Australia Chorus ticked every box of excellence from the start. Moving en masse in waves and surges around ribbons of blood, waving banners, threatening swords and towering figures of rule, the singing was richly textured, strong and lucent, both on and off stage. A snaking chorus of children, likewise, delighted the eyes and ears. 

Imperial ministers Ping, Pang and Pong (Christopher Hillier, Virgilio Marino and John Longmuir) melded quirky moves in large scrolls with earnest warnings to the latest besotted suitor, Calàf, and musings on nothing more than a life in nature far-removed from Beijing’s quandary and its sacred books. Fortunately, they’re an entertaining trio who bounced their gravelly vocals off each other and joined splendidly in rhythmic unison. 

Christopher Hillier, Virgilio Marino and John Longmuir
as Ping, Pang and Pong
Spanish tenor Andeka Gorrotxategi strikes the gong to signify his determination to solve the riddles as a suitably valiant Calàf . Gorrotxategi exhibited burning passion with charismatic tone on opening night but I got the feeling there was more in the tank to give. With no time to waste in Act 3’s popular but brief header, “Nessun dorma!”, Gorrotxategi’s rendition was cleanly and forwardly sung, though seemingly without taking absolute ownership of time and place. 

Soprano Mariana Hong’s expressive vocal weight and sympathetically drawn character gave pitiful truthfulness to the slave girl Liù all the way through to the gripping tragic ending that befalls her. As her blind master and Calàf ’s father Timur, Richard Anderson convincingly carried the burden of old age and fading hope with a bass of grainy, sinuous appeal. Giving authoritative voice to a small role, Andrew Moran glided about in his element as a roll-about Mandarin but Graeme Macfarlane lacked projection from his lofty position at the rear of the stage as the Emperor Altoum.

When Princess Turandot finally shows up to sing midway through Act 2, American soprano Amber Wagner powered the title role on opening night with all manner of sensational vocal beauty. Like a spurned sorceress, Wagner unleashed the pent up resentment Turandot has for any man who tries to win her affection. Top to bottom, Wagner preyed on the music, singing out with ferocious might, penetrating daggers and condescending tone. “No man will ever own me”, Wagner meaningfully proclaims and, though the sentiment is short-lived, with those intensely emoted notes she gave fleeting hope to all women. 

Amber Wagner as Turandot and Andeka Gorrotxategi as Calàf 
When Wagner sings, you take notice, just as you would’ve in Opera Australia’s Ring Cycle of 2016 when she appeared as Sieglinde. That voluptuous sound Wagner can muster needs a companion but the duets she shares with Gorrotxategi often left the tenor in the shade. And, for the tricky ending that Puccini never lived to compose conclusively? Wagner’s nuanced treatment of the abrupt change of heart that Turandot has when she melts into love with Calàf took the finale winningly over the line as the two walk into the distance. 

All the characteristic momentum, the crests and troughs and delicately threaded passages came together emphatically under conductor Christian Badea. Act 1 could benefit from reining in the opening cracking pace, as would cutting out the interval between the first and second act. The Opera Australia Orchestra played superbly with special mention to the brass players who brought shuddering grandeur to the recurring  ceremonial brass exhalations. 

It may not be long away but regardless when the national company decide to retire this 1990 production, the strength of Murphy’s concept will resonate for decades to come for those fortunate enough to see and feel its energy. 

Opera Australia
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 30th March, 2018

Production Photos: Keith Saunders

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