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
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
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|
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.
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 30th March, 2018
Production Photos: Keith Saunders