Giacomo Puccini, the last great Italian opera composer, died before finishing Turandot, a pseudo-Chinese fairy tale of love and violence. Inspired by traditional Chinese melodies, which he first heard playing on a decorative music box, and driven by a desire to create an operatic masterpiece every bit as grand as Verdi’s “Aïda,” Puccini toiled over every note of “Turandot.” The end result, which sadly, Puccini never got to see, was an enormous success and continues to be so today, likely because the soaring melodies evoke deep emotion in the listener.
Seattle Opera’s production, first performed in Pittsburgh, is a marvel of collaboration. The Quebec-based design team of André Barbe and Renaud Doucet has created a “Turandot” that feels like a complete thought. Barbe’s opulent costumes – made almost exclusively of silk – and magnificent sets – enormous, detailed, and eye-popping – are drawn together by a circular motif, symbolizing the circle of life, which Doucet cites as the most important aspect of “Turandot.”
It is a strange opera for many reasons, not the least of which is the contrast between the tragic, bloody arc of the story (perhaps symbolized by the enormous red arches framing the stage?) and the moments of pure commedia dell’arte performed by the trio of government ministers, Ping, Pang, and Pong (Patrick Carfizzi, Julius Ahn, and Joseph Hu). Throughout the opera these three (one audience member was heard to refer to them as “the three stooges”) pop up to provide a humorous take on the goings on around them. At the beginning of Act II they even perform a vaudeville routine in matching long underwear (a big hit with audiences, especially the younger members). But not only are they funny, they can sing! Their humor reinforces their luscious melodies; it does not distract from the
Another reason why “Turandot” is unusual is that there are so few likeable characters. The only two truly “good guys” are Timur, the ageing, exiled Tartar king, and his loyal servant Liù. As Timur, the basso Peter Rose used both vocal power and exquisite acting to create a portrait of a once-powerful man weakened by the physical ailments of age and the emotional turmoil of losing those closest to him. Grazia Doronzio as Liù showed her youthful vitality and sweet voice, but I would have liked to have heard a little more power as the evening went on. As a side note, I was somewhat less than impressed with the torture scene and Liù’s death – it seemed the one weak point in an otherwise strong staging.
As Altoum, the emperor of China, Peter Kazaras was frankly a disappointment. I could barely hear him throughout (even without an orchestra behind him). As his daughter, the icy Princess Turandot, Lori Phillips had several moments of vocal trouble, but made up for the lack of refinement with pure power and good acting skills. The real star of the evening though, was Antonello Palombi as the Unknown Prince – vocally in fine form, he commanded the stage with his presence, although I did get tired of the “power position” stance that he used in lieu of acting.
In a time of economic uncertainty, Seattle Opera has pulled out all the stops to make “Turandot” a spectacle for the eyes and ears. On the night I went, August 8th, the audience was filled with excitement, especially about the newness of the production, a rarity amidst the cheaper, older productions that have been used for many years. I for one hope that the rest of the season is as thrilling as this summer’s “Turandot.”
Evan, Northeast Teen Advisor