Seattle Opera’s Spectacular, Splendiferous ‘Turandot’

You like spectacle? Go see Turandot. Interested in fashion design? Take your binoculars. Love superb singing? Go and enjoy this grand, elaborate spectacle of an opera with wonderful music, a tenor aria all the world recognizes, a fantastic story and tear-jerking moments, taking place around a wide circular stair dripping with blood.

Yes, that’s Puccini’s Turandot in Seattle Opera’s new production at McCaw Hall (mounted by five major opera companies to help defray the costs).

Seattle Opera has always pulled out all the stops for its summer opera production. Apart from its four-yearly Wagner Ring cycle, Turandot will be the last one until the economy improves.

It’s not a long opera, but the requirements are heavy, in terms of an enormous cast of peasants, soldiers, courtiers, dancers, wise men, executioners, etc., and several very big voices in demanding roles which can be heard over the large pit orchestra.

The story in brief is of a Chinese princess, Turandot, who beheads all her royal suitors if they cannot answer three oblique riddles she poses. At the opening she has denuded close to thirty principalities of their princes. In Peking, both court and people are sick and tired of the bloodshed. Yet another prince comes to try his hand, not dissuaded by pleas from all including the old Emperor, and despite his unexpected reunion with an aging, blind father from whom he has been separated by war.

The unknown prince, Calaf, answers the riddles, the princess still refuses to have anything to do with him, he agrees he will die if she can name him, and she decrees all Peking will not sleep until the name is discovered and die if it can’t.

Yes, she seems a nasty piece of work to start with, but the opera begins to show that she is scared of love and vulnerability. It takes the torture and death of the slave girl Liu who cares for Calaf’s father Timur to show up the contrast between the steadfastness and selflessness of love and Turandot’s icy barriers which shut love out. Of course love wins out in the end as Turandot thaws and gives her hand to Calaf.

Light relief comes in in the shape of three courtiers, Ping, Pang and Pong, whose antics offset the court pageantry.

Seattle’s production has been created by two men who always work together, Renaud Doucet, stage director and choreographer, and Andre Barbe, inaginative set and costume designer, and lit by another close colleague, Guy Simard. From the outset, it’s shocking, bombastic in the scenic splendors, barbarically lit in red, which unfold accompanied by the full-throated sound of the huge chorus.

The solo voices need to be big as well as beautiful in rising above the clamor of chorus voices and full orchestration. Both the gold and silver cast achieved this on opening night, Saturday August 4, and Sunday afternoon, August 5. While gold cast Turandot Lori Phillips has sung this role many times, and the silver cast’s Marcy Stonikas is a newcomer both to Turandot but also to a major part in a major opera house, both do a superb job of their difficult, very high soprano roles and of the transition from ice to uncertainty to change (although this last comes surprisingly suddenly).

Calaf also has a tricky part which requires a tenor able to sing very high consistently but also have solid low notes. The gold cast’s Antonello Palombi has almost a baritone sound to his low notes, but his high ones are unquestionably there and sounded sweet even when singing full out. Luis Chapa in the silver cast seemed to need the first act to warm up. It wasn’t always easy then to tell what note he was on, given his vibrato, but he hit his stride in the succeeding acts and did an excellent job. Both men received huge applause after the opera’s signature area in the third act, “Nessun Dorma,” made famous by Luciano Pavarotti in many recitals. It’s perhaps the most nuanced of the arias Calaf sings, and both men nailed it.

However, the most appealing people in the opera are not Turandot and Calaf, but Timur and Liu, the most rounded characters with the most familiar emotions. In both casts, bass Peter Rose held the stage whenever he sang, and his acting as the frail and blind old man tore the heartstrings. His faithful slave Liu, sung here by two women small of stature with clear sopranos, is a classic Puccini role, recognizable as sister to Mimi in La Boheme and Cio-Cio-san in Madama Butterfly. Lina Tetriani, in the gold cast, sang a little far in the back of her throat on high notes, where silver cast Grazia Doronzio had a more open sound in that register, but both gave their role the emotional content which is really the meaning of the opera.

A delight to watch and fine singers, Patrick Carfizzi, Julius Ahn and Joseph Hu as Ping, Pang and Pong were masters in the detailed absurdities of their roles, not least their emergence with twirling parasols in one-piece long johns printed with ideograms.

Peter Kazaras, nowadays more a stage director than a singer who has taken many roles on Seattle Opera’s stage, had the cameo role of Turandot’s father, the emperor Altoum.

The chorus, including a chorus of children, is a major feature of Turandot, as court and peasantry make their opinions known and add their important contribution under the aegis of chorusmaster Beth Kirchhoff

This Turandot is almost too much to take in in one visit, but it leaves one with a sense of kaleidoscopic, choreographed movement in gloriously inventive costumes (especially the headgear) and one’s ears full of equally glorious music, all conducted with unerring timing by the company’s principal guest conductor Asher Fisch.

Turandot continues at Seattle Opera through Aug. 18. Pictured above: Turandot is directed and choreographed by Renaud Doucet, with costumes and sets designed by André Barbe. Photo © Alan Alabastro.