REVIEW OF 2019 CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY PRODUCTION
Turandot, Puccini’s last opera, is back at the Canadian Opera Company after an absence of fifteen years. The singing is outstanding, the orchestra superb and the new production directed by Robert Wilson is original, idiosyncratic, experimental and quite astounding.
Turandot is set in mythical China and is the story about a beautiful but unpleasant Princess Turandot who is in the habit of decapitating men who cannot solve three riddles. An unknown prince shows up at the palace in Beijing and falls in love with Turandot at first sight and so badly that he is prepared to risk his life in order to get her. His father, a blind, deposed king, is travelling with a slave girl and meets up at the palace with his son who happens to be the unknown prince.
The exotic setting and the myth provide huge latitude for directors to exercise their imagination about how to present the opera. And indeed they have from Franco Zeffirelli’s over-the-top lush rendering to commedia dell’arte renderings with much in between.
Robert Wilson’s approach is to present a static, almost monochromatic production where the characters do not interact. Prince Calaf (tenor Sergey Skorokhodov), you will recall, falls in love with Turandot after a cursory look. In fact, Calaf, appearing in gray from head to toe, spends most of his time on stage looking in front of him, chin up, with no eye contact with anyone.
This holds true for most of the characters.
The libretto calls for Calaf to run up to his father King Timur (David Leigh) happy and relieved that he has finally found him. In this production, Calaf, Timur and the slave girl Liu (Joyce El-Khoury) stand like statues throughout and again do not establish any contact or interaction. This holds true for everyone except for Ping (Adrian Timpau), Pang (Julian Ahn) and Pong (Joseph Hu) who bop up and down continuously like comic characters from a silent movie. By the way, they are called Jim, Bob and Bill. They deserve praise for fine vocal and physical performances.
Puccini’s music, the chorus and the singers provide the opera with motion and thrust that transport the audience into extraordinary heights of enjoyment. The details of the plot do not bear too much analysis from Calaf’s treatment of Liu, to Turandot’s attitude to people, to her “melting” in the throes of love. All can stretch credulity beyond its limits.
Wilson I suggest treats the plot as a series of rituals that are carried by the music and singing and may not need or bear any attempt at realism. We listen to the incredibly wonderful choruses, the arias etc. and they carry us along without the necessity of looking any further. Liu is tortured and kills herself but there is nothing on stage to illustrate it. There is a change in lighting over Liu and she is “dead” even if she is still standing.
Wilson designed the production including the lighting concepts. The Chorus with their black armor and helmets look like defectors from Star Wars. The stage has no props and lighting is used judiciously and effectively. Realism is eschewed at every turn. Turandot goes across the stage and back but she seems to float along the floor. Timur with his long white beard and hair almost never moves.
The singing is excellent. Skorokhodov sings standing in one place with no movement at all except during “Nessun dorma” when he uses his hands a little. His declaration of love is ritualistic and thrilling in their own terms without romantic outpourings which in the context of the opera may be unconvincing.
Soprano Tamara Wilson is indeed the icy princess but she excels vocally. She is frosty while El-Khoury’s Liu is sympathetic and vocally splendid. She can hardly be anything else but again her outpouring of emotion is restrained to the parameters of Wilson’s view of the opera.
Conductor Carlo Rizzi and the COC Orchestra and Chorus deserve extra commendation for their outstanding performance in keeping us enthralled perhaps because of or maybe despite Wilson’s approach. A thrilling night at the opera.
Turandot by Giacomo Puccini (completed by Franco Alfano) with libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni is being performed nine times in repertory between September
26 and October 27, 2019 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671. www.coc.ca