Turandot review (Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour)

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Over the last few decades Turandot has become an opera which seems to not only hang off one aria, but also hang off just one note. The sustained B in Nessun Dorma is probably now opera’s most famous note (Puccini never intended it to be sustained; it’s just a semi-quaver in the score), after the aria was launched to stratospheric popularity by Luciano Pavarotti in the early 1990s.

Director Chen Shi-Zheng’s new production of Turandot, for the fifth year of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, makes the aria the “firework moment”, and there’s a lot of pressure on the tenor playing Calaf to match the vocal fireworks with the physical ones. So let’s deal with that performance first.

On opening night Riccardo Massi, an excellent Calaf in all respects, turned in a fine, impassioned reading of the aria. He approached the final phrase gently to ensure there was enough power left in the tank to sustain a glorious B for as long as a singer can without being too indulgent.

And that attitude is reflected in the whole production: Chen and his designer Dan Potra have pushed everything right to the edge of indulgence and stopped just short of being too camp or gaudy.

Of course, it’s expected that production teams do something big with the event, and they’ve done just that: there’s a magnificent, massive, fire-breathing dragon, which comes to life at a dramatically poignant moment (although it does obscure the view of the stage for some audience members; I’d avoid the front of sections A or B), and a pagoda tower from which Princess Turandot rules over China.

But the Chinese-American director Chen has long resisted invitations to direct Turandot because it presents a stereotypical view of some aspects of China. He finally said yes to Opera Australia’s tenacious artistic director Lyndon Terracini, seeking to explore what this piece — a 1920s western idea of China — could mean in 2016.

As Chen has noted, Puccini’s two Asian female leads — Turandot and Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly — are vastly different but equally offensive stereotypes of Asian femininity. He wanted to find a new understanding of Turandot, the icy cold Chinese princess who cruelly murders all her foreign suitors. Although she has an aria explaining China’s history of wars and the betrayal of foreigners, few productions spend too much effort exploring her motivations. Chen wanted to make her consistent and “real”.

Dramatically, it’s not the strongest opera in the canon. It’s nicely focused and well-told, but there’s little about it that rings emotionally true and although Puccini’s score does a fine job of heating things up and providing some nuance, Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni’s libretto features only broad sketches of one-dimensional characters.

But there’s something about the grandeur and spectacle of this event which makes a lot of that seem forgivable. The piece becomes less about the relationships between individuals and their conflicts and more about relationships of power: between foreigners and China and between the people of Beijing and their rulers.

Has Chen achieved his goal of turning Turandot into a real person? I’m not convinced he’s entirely succeeded — she’s still the icy princess held high in her tower, only coming down to earth to order the execution of foreign princes who seek her hand in marriage. Chen’s staging certainly doesn’t shy away from that — Turandot has little movement in this production and spends most of her time atop a massive drawbridge, staring terrifyingly down upon all who would dare to approach.

What she does become in Chen’s production is an intriguing and important embodiment of China — a proud and determined nation which carries the pain of its past.

Serbian soprano Dragana Radakovic (who shares the role with Daria Masiero) turned in a spectacular performance on opening night — she’s a true dramatic soprano with the perfect voice for this role: huge, precise and agile with a brittle, tough but still very attractive edge. She never seems to be holding anything back, and it’s a thrill to hear a vocal powerhouse give her absolute best.

Hyeseoung Kwon provides a beautiful, lighter counterpoint to Turandot as Liu and, although her character arc (and I’m using the word “arc” very generously) is pretty absurd, Kwon manages to win the audience’s sympathies.

The Opera Australia chorus has more vocal work in Turandot than in the previous four operas in the series, and they provide a rich and fully-rounded sound (although there are occasional balance problems — unsurprising when you’ve got microphones on more than 40 singers).

Brian Castles-Onion returns as conductor and keeps those on stage and in the orchestra in step with one another, drawing maximum dramatic effect from Puccini’s score. While the orchestra does a fine job it’s difficult to evaluate them too closely in an outdoor amplified setting, even though Tony David Cray’s sound design is surprisingly clear.

While this is a production which thrills and quietly reconsiders some of the ideas underlying the opera, I can’t help feeling that there have been a few opportunities missed to bust open some of the stereotypes and narrative tropes driving it forward. I’m not sure the Opera on Sydney Harbour event really lends itself to radical artistic visions, but this is an opera which could certainly be treated to one.

But that’s a minor disappointment for a production which is so generously entertaining and transportive. Opera on Sydney Harbour was always meant to be a crowd-pleasing spectacle and on that count this Turandot is an unqualified success.

Turandot is at Mrs Macquaries Point until April 24. Featured image by Prudence Upton

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