Razzle-Dazzle in Old Peking

Review by: Robert Levine

Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 8

First off, the CD version of this performance (OPOZ56034CD) is out of the running: the sound is matte-finished and somewhat muffled and the orchestra occasionally recedes into the background. In addition, since much of the appeal of this Opera Australia production, recorded live in Melbourne on the 20th and 25th of April, 2012, is visual (and there are plenty of better CD performances on the market), there is little need for the CD version.

And what a production! If it is possible to out-Zeffirelli Zeffirelli, then designer Kristian Fredrikson, and particularly director/choreographer (yes, you read that correctly) Graeme Murphy have managed it. Except for the arias, the Riddle Scene, and the final duet, the stage is in perpetual motion. As they sing, the members of the chorus sway, walk, or glide in odd formations, and occasionally move their bodies in a circular motion, sort of like a spoon stirring a cup of tea. It certainly does address critics who claim that choruses can be too static, but after a while it is almost funny: what will they be asked to do next? Chop wood? Feed the cat? And the remarkable thing is that no matter how wildly they are tilting their heads or moving their arms, they sing magnificently. You might argue that their reading of the text is robotic—almost phonetically accurate and unimaginative—but you would be accused of being a curmudgeon and you wouldn’t like that. We all like Busby Berkeley musicals, right?

The stage is an incessant twirl of fans, banners, and loose sleeves of a rainbow of bright colors; masks abound; the make-up for Ping, Pang, and Pong—not to mention the ax-wielding guards and executioner—is grotesque. Backdrops include a huge, bronze gong—very beautiful, indeed, a gigantic mask representing the moon, an immense fan that opens to reveal Turandot in a transparent bubble (!), a dragon-ornamented grill or two, and what looks like a 20-foot-high beehive, at the top of which is Emperor Altoum’s singing head, while its bottom opens for Turandot’s entrance into the Riddle Scene.

The Mandarin is 30 feet tall and rolls across the stage, while the Prince of Persia, handsome and all in silver armor with red and silver scarves, takes a very long time to stroll through the crowd to his death. Calaf appears in Act 3 floating on dry ice with white fabric waving around him, and Turandot’s handmaidens wear white stripes of make-up on their cheeks and under their lips. The attention to detail is staggering. If this all seems like overkill, well, it depends on your tolerance for spectacle; but it is positively unforgettable. It certainly is busy and unnatural, but this opera is hardly appreciated for its moderation or realism. The production, by the way, is 22 years old.

The decision to stop action when soloists take the stage is beyond wise. Cathy Dadd and Christopher Dawes are credited with rehearsing the show; if it is their doing it certainly works. For one thing, the eye can relax for a moment; for another we can pay attention to the singers themselves. There’s much to enjoy here on that account, despite a clear lack of Corellis, Domingos, Nilssons, Scottos, and Caballés. American soprano Susan Foster has the right sized instrument, she’s musical, and she pays attention to the text. She starts off well enough—just a bit of squall—and gains steadily, never tiring and always landing directly on the note. A very impressive Turandot.

Tenor Rosario La Spina begins fiercely, exhibiting a big if not particularly ringing sound, and throwing all vocal caution to the wind, which he pays for somewhat by the final scene: the voice dries up and some strain and insecurity enters. But since I can’t really name a great, live Calaf, I’ll leave it at that. Hyeseoung Kwon looks and sounds a bit old for Liu—the voice lacks innocence—but her portrayal is a success. Jud Arthur makes us realize precisely how long Timur’s third-act scene really is when sung with a parched tone.

Andrea Licata leads a performance for its excitement (and includes Turandot’s oft-omitted “Del primo pianto”, which is handsomely sung by Foster), save for the Ping, Pang, and Pong scene that seems to go on forever in spite of their spinning, fan-dancing, and playing peek-a-boo. But Licata’s approach does not lend itself to allowing Puccini’s orchestration—his most vivid and colorful—to shine, and the orchestra is not exactly the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonic, nor the Met or Covent Garden. Where are the xylophones in the first-act finale?

And so, we have an amazingly unsubtle performance, which may be just how you like your Turandot. Subtitles are in major European languages and Korean, and the picture quality is magnificent. Luckily for this DVD the competition is very slim. I’d go with the Met Opera’s Marton and Domingo on DG, but this one, for sheer gall, spectacle, and very acceptable singing, is a close second.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Marton/Domingo/Levine (DG); This one


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