In Opera Australia’s regular, enduring repertoire of classic productions there’s perhaps none more enduring than director and choreographer Graham Murphy’s 1990 production of Puccini’s Turandot. That’s thanks to a number of factors, not least of which is designer Kristian Fredrikson’s otherworldly set and costumes which draw on a number of Asian influences but step far enough away from any individual culture to avoid the kind of orientalism and fetishisation which is par for the course in most productions of Turandot.
In fact Pucinni’s opera, an adaption of a centuries old fairytale of a brutal, ice-cold princess, is one of the clearest examples of the west’s orientalism in the early 20th century and has a not insignificant gender problem (don’t most of the greatest operas?). But it’s a clear musical highpoint for the composer, matching a formal inventiveness with some of his most emotionally evocative (and hummable) melodies. And the story does pack a punch.
The new mounting of this production, vividly brought back to life by revival director Kim Walker, is a spectacular, thrilling and rare night of opera. Murphy uses several dancers, but this is an opera which relies heavily on its chorus and Murphy asks a lot of the ensemble. They’re required to perform simple but tightly choreographed movement throughout much of the opera, and the effect of all these bodies moving in unison is spectacular. And although a little rhythmic tightness seems to be sacrificed for the movement in the first act, the chorus produces a rich, dynamic sound.
They’re under the assured baton of Christian Badea, who leads those onstage and in the pit through a brisk but well-coloured reading of the score.
Out front in the title role is America soprano Lise Lindstrom, who brings a true dramatic soprano tone into play (she’ll be playing Brünhilde in Opera Australia’s Ring Cycle next year, and it’s clear from her performance in this role that she has a voice of Wagnerian proportions). Although Lindstrom’s vocal performance was a little messy at the beginning of opening night, by the time the third act rolled around, she had clearly warmed up and delivered a powerful and sensitive reading of the role. It’s also an impressive dramatic performance in a rather strangely written role — she almost overcomes the absurdity of her character’s third act transformation from ice queen to loving wife.
Although the opera is named Turandot, it’s usually the singer playing the young prince Calaf who steals the show (he gets to sing Nessun Dorma, after all) and this production is no exception.
Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee has a rare vocal quality, combining a darkness of tone with a light touch and clear, resonant ring — it’s an exciting sound. He traces his character’s admittedly limited emotional journey admirably and honestly, and his Nessun Dorma is a great thrill — gorgeously and expressively sung, even if it’s pitched mostly at the same dramatic level. And if there’s a decent chunk of the audience there just to hear the triumphant top B at the end of the aria (and I suspect there will be), he certainly doesn’t disappoint, milking the money note for all it’s worth.
Hyeseoung Kwon returns to the role of Liu, and is the perfect soft but passionate opposing force to Lindstrom’s Turandot. It’s an excellent performance in its own right, but it’s also the perfect vocal counterpoint to Turandot, full of a gentler warmth and pianissimo top notes. That two sopranos of such broadly different sensibilities sit comfortably within the one opera is one of the most intriguing aspects of this production.
There are fine supporting performances from Jud Arthur as the elderly Timur, and from Luke Gabbedy, John Longmuir and Graeme Macfarlane as the fun but cringeworthy Ping, Pong and Pang. Murphy’s work with these three characters is amongst his best choreography for singers, particularly at the top of the second act, where he’s invigorated one of the opera’s flatter moments with some excellent comedic work involving oversized scrolls.
An important point to bear in mind with this production is that it is inventive and was certainly, at the time of its premiere, artistically risky. Opera Australia has built many excellent productions from the ground up in recent years which will undoubtedly stay in their repertoire for years (most notably John Bell’s sublime Tosca, Gale Edwards’ stunning La Boheme, and recently David McVicar’s Don Giovanni), but it has been quite a while since the company trusted a director with a genuinely novel vision with one of the most popular classics. It’s always a risk, but the success of Murphy’s Turandot is a reminder of just how rich those rewards can be when the risk pays off.