Angela Meade as Turandot. Photo: Cory Weaver.

Turandot LAOpera 2024

Written by:
Karen Weinstein
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If it seems like everyone in the opera world is performing Turandot, you are right. Not only is Turandot a perennial favorite, but one hundred years after Puccini’s death the Met, the Washington National Opera, and LA Opera, for starters, are all celebrating the centennial of this unfinished masterpiece. Yes, unfinished. Puccini died in the midst of completing Act III. It was left to composer Franco Alfano to put the pieces together, and so it played for years with a few efforts at an alternative ending. The copyright has petered out and gloves are off. The Washington National Opera version sports a new Act III, presumably leaving the beloved aria, Nessun Dorma intact.

LA Opera has left the traditional Alfano third act pretty much as it has been for the last hundred years. The Hockney sets, however, despite being about 34 years old, are fresh and fantastical. Dramaturgist Kelly Rourke has described Turandot as, “an Italian verismo opera about a Chinese Princes based on a commedia dell’arte play that took its subject matter from a Persian story of a Russian princess, reworked by a French folklorist.” Yes, phew is right. Typical productions lean much more heavily on easily identifiable pieces of chinoiserie while Hockney’s sets sport only a passing nod to traditional Chinese architecture. They vibrate with saturated colors and abstract designs. The Chandler, in turn vibrates with beautiful music.

A program essay by William Berger goes to great length discussing the problem of presenting early twentieth century cultural sensibilities to the current hypersensitive, cross cultural sensitivities. In a way, Hockney’s free-form sets free us from a literal interpretation. Yes, references to Peking do occur on occasion. Also the use of the pentatonic scale when Ping (Ryan Wolfe), Pang (Terrance Chin-Loy), and Pong (Julius Ahn) cavort in comedia dell’arte style and costume, remind us this is China. But modern audiences can remind themselves that this was written long ago and the world was a different place. Not only that, but it was set in a fictional time and place. Just think, it is Beijing now, not Peking. Does the dialogue really need to be reworked? Relax. Our sensibilities have been fine-tuned, but do not turn aside masterpieces of the past; this production owes no apologies.

The story of Turandot is silly and non-sensical. Turandot (Angela Meade), a spoiled princess, has decreed she will only marry a man who can answer her three riddles, she will behead any who fail at the task. Many have pursued her, heads have rolled; she justifies her tyranny on the basis of the misogyny of the male species. In 1924, women in America had just earned the right to vote, but one could hardly excuse her behavior on the basis of feminism. Calaf, (Russell Thomas), the Tartar Prince, presents himself proclaiming his great love of her. He knows the rules but fearlessly trumpets his ardor. The role of Turandot demands a very powerful soprano. Angela Meade fully fits the bill. Her voice is magnificent. She is an ice princess to her core with power and presence. Tenor Russell Thomas’ voice is strong but lacking in emotional conviction. It is particularly telling in Act III where he sings the beloved Nessun Dorma. It is inevitable that cynical audiences will assume the prince, and all the princes who proceeded him, are drawn more to the real estate than to the princess herself. With his lack of obvious passion what else can one conclude? The passionate ending does not work, to put it mildly.

Calaf and his father arrived with Liu (Guanqun Yu), a servant girl who has been with them forever. She has carried a private torch for Calaf. Yu’s voice and acting are a standout in this cast. No one can doubt her passion. Other standouts are the Ping, Pang, Pong trio. They are charming and lithe. The ballet segment is both longer, better choreographed and danced than is generally seen onan opera stage.

Hockney and Puccini are a powerful mixture. By all means come for their delights. Earlier this year Percival Everett published “James,” a reimagining of Huck Finn from the point of view of Jim, not Huck. It was an instant best seller. He did not scour Twain’s language. It is a story of time passed. We should be able to view a piece of art like Turandot without doing back flips. This production is worthy of viewing. Leave your contemporary apologia at the door.
Karen Weinstein

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