Andre Barbe’s set and costume designs for Opera Philadelphia’s current production of Puccini’s Turandot are so spectacular, that they keep giving during the entire time. The detailing and cultural template recalls the golden age of Hollywood and the impact threaten to upstage not only the singers, but Puccini. Fortunately, the performance aspects of this Turandot were, for the most part, just as impressive. Directed by Renaud Doucet, whose previous 2009 production with Opera Philadelphia seems garish and flaccid in comparison.
The brutal story spun from a Persian tale by Puccini and librettists Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simon, is retold as a Chinese court drama, sung in Italian. The ‘pure’ Principessa Turandot, protector of the dynastic rule as the ‘pure’ embodiment of its sovereignty. Suitors must prove they are of royal blood by to solving the three riddles to win her, and if they loose it’s a brutal beheading. Excalibur anyone?
The rules of this deadly game are told in the court ceremonials of Act I as a huge Opera Philadelphia Chorus floods the Academy stage in red-tunics for the raucous rituals of court including scurries out from under the saber dancers.
Soprano Christine Goerke’s vocal entrance in Act II is so icy it startles, and masterfully lets the masks vocally fall to reveal of the woman under the scary headdress. As Calaf, Marco Berti has an assured mid-range tenor, but in quieter dialogue scenes, surf some sharps, and seems vocally tentative in key moments. In contrast, his “Nessun Dorma,” is beautifully assured, and admirably reined in from its ‘hit’ mystique. The court intrigue, as well as Turandot and Calaf’s adversarial chemistry builds such tension that when they break out and finally kiss, the audience laughs and applauds. Doucet knows how to vamp this hothouse story.
Morris Robinson plays the blinded, deposed ruler Timur, with such heartbreaking tenderness as she staggers him around the stage as his majestic basso engulfs the opera house. Mezzo-soprano Joyce El-Khoury, is equally powerful as Lui, Timur’s companion, who will not betray him or Calaf, even under torture.
Doucet seems mindful of the built-in Asian stereotypes in Turandot. There is thoughtful authenticity in dynamic court dances, for instance, rather than just a stylization.
Meanwhile he turns stock characters Ping, Pang, Pong into vaudevillians. Baritone Daniell Belcher and tenors Julius Ahn and Joseph Gaines as the irrepressible ministers of the court. They swill cocktails as they gossip about the gruesome fates of hapless courtiers, joking about whether they will preside over a wedding or execution. They finish off, in swim jumpers, vaudevillians twirling umbrellas ala 20s bathing beauties.
Conductor Corrado Rovaris brings both symphonic power and chamber like translucence to the score, crystallizing the Asian cultural motifs appropriated by Puccini. The combined choruses, directed by choir master Elizabeth Braden, sustains clarity and dimension throughout to deliver some of Puccini’s most moving and muscled ensemble passages.