A Turandot with the lot please
The Magic Flute was my very first live opera experience, and first on-screen before that... Ingmar Bergman’s (still magical) version in Swedish. And I can’t say I’m not excited by the prospect of seeing Julie Taymor’s production.
In terms of sheer hours spent listening to it, Turandot -- especially the final act -- is up there, too. I’ve seen Graeme Murphy’s production a handful of times since it premiered in 1990 and even, gasp, own it on VHS. (It was filmed at the State Theatre as a matter of fact, in April 1991.)
Benjamin Rasheed, Susan Foster and Rosario La Spina
in Turandot (pic: Jeff Busby, click on image to enlarge)
The Barber of Seville was another boyhood favourite of mine, along with the word factotum. (Interesting that the company is opting to stage the older tried-and-true Elijah Moshinsky version rather than the more recent and cartoon-like John Milson production, reviewed here.)
So, yeah, it’s all there in the State Theatre in April and May. Sweet, salt, fat... even a bit of tart. (The Merry Widow.)
But in this climate, the chances of seeing Pélleas et Mélisande, say, are absurdly unlikely. Alas. Having said all that, the 2012 season is hardly junk food opera. It’s more comfort food opera. Like really good lamb shanks and mash on the restaurant menu.
Murphy’s Turandot stands up well, even after twenty-odd years, though I have to say it was better done at its last outing in Melbourne. Marginally. This particular production was rehearsed in Sydney for the Summer season at the Opera House so it’s possible that some looseness may have crept in since January. Murphy demands much of the large chorus. It’s constantly on the move, in waves and eddies. When it works well, it’s spectacular. When it’s just a little off, as it was at times last night, it seems overly busy, even contrived.
The stage craft is most apparent in the miraculously good final act, when it is least noticeable. Without fuss, the action transitions from Calaf, solo, floating in fabric and dry ice, to a full complement of soloists, chorus and dancers, back to an intimate duet between Turandot and Calaf and back again for an all-in climax in a blink of an eye.
The first act, if anything, has too many design and choreographic ideas. We hardly have time to admire the bronze eye-like gong in the gloom -- a setting so evocative and inspired it could fascinate the eye for an entire evening rather than a few fleeting moments -- before it is replaced with another set piece or cannoning explosion of fabric and bodies. (Intriguingly, Murphy uses flags and fans and the sleeves of costumes, here, in exactly the same way he uses dancers when choreographing for the Australian Ballet.)
With Andrea Licata wielding the stick in the pit, the massed forces of Orchestra Victoria and OA choruses were barely in control. I’m guessing that was a deliberate choice. This was one of the darkest, driest and most wild performances of Puccini’s score I’ve heard, live or recorded. And it’s a reading I happen to like.
I’ve always thought Turandot is to anxiety what Tristan is to longing, which makes the crescendo of the former and the climax of the latter so extraordinarily affecting.Vocally, this production is exceptionally strong. Jud Arthur was scarily reminiscent of Donald Shanks as Timur. Hyeseoung Kwon (as Liù) pitched her performance exquisitely. I thought her shimmering voice was a little too dry for the role in the first act, but I think she sacrificed her performance, there, to suit the dusty tenor of the music. Her final scene was lush and memorable.
Rosario La Spina and Susan Foster (Jeff Busby)
Likewise the performance trajectories of Rosario La Spina (Calaf) and Susan Foster (Turandot) seemed to cross. Calaf’s ascendancy and Turandot’s ‘fall’ evident in the increasing and decreasing force, respectively, of their voices. Or, rather, her increasing softness of tone.
In short, this was great opera and great theatre.
There are eight more performances in Melbourne between April 13 and May 11.
Turandot by Giacomo Puccini. Directed and choreographed by Graeme Murphy. (Kim Walker, Associate Director.) Rehearsed by Cathy Dadd and Christopher Dawes. Designed by Kristian Fredrikson. Lighting by John Drummond Montgomery.
Orchestra Victoria and choruses conducted by Andrea Licata.
Opera Australia. State Theatre, Melbourne, April 10, 2012.