Puccini’s final opera may contain his single most-famous tune, but it’s also the toughest work in his canon to produce in a way that’s both musically and dramatically satisfying. A big and expensive show to mount, Turandot is based on a simple fairy-tale story freighted with the promise of a deeper significance the libretto fails to support or make convincing. Puccini’s glorious score, riddled with one potential deathtrap after another for the notoriously difficult-to-cast principals, can all too easily be reduced to a vulgar blockbuster of overheated climaxes and swollen pomp.
Seattle Opera has just opened its current five-opera season with a new staging of Turandot, which recounts the legendary tale of an icy-hearted Chinese princess whose suitors must submit to an all-or-nothing riddle contest — the price of failure being instant death. The production successfully combines its musical, scenic, and theatrical dimensions into a unified vision that’s genuinely enthralling. While it doesn’t solve all the musico-dramatic riddles posed by the work, this Turandot offers a fresh perspective that anyone who’s dismissive of Puccini’s late though flawed masterpiece should see.
Much of that coherence and freshness comes from the attractive work of the production team of André Barbe and Renaud Doucet. They’re making their company debut with this Turandot, a joint venture between Seattle Opera and four other companies that was first staged last year by Pittsburgh Opera.
These Quebec-based artistic partners (sets and costumes by Barbe, stage direction and choreography by Doucet) have devised an approach that might be called “Regie-light,” which I mean in a positive way: a strong interpretive point of view comes through, without the heavy-handedness and conceptual shoehorning that’s often associated with contemporary European opera directors. Moreover, Barbe and Doucet aren’t skittish about borrowing the vocabulary and sensibility of show business entertainment, which they manage to integrate quite tastefully into this most spectacle-oriented of Puccini’s operas.
The costumes parade an eye-catching spectrum of bright colors that vividly underline the totalitarian stratification of this world, set “in legendary times” in China’s Forbidden City, from obeisant slaves and peasants to court sycophants, menacing executioners, and the imperial rulers who wield godlike power. Monumental decapitated heads suspended on poles keep watch as a silent warning throughout the first act, while the pleasing symmetry of the ceremonial pageants and choreography (dancers whirling in perfect unison, with a hint of martial arts) demonstrate the love of hierarchical order that keeps everyone in check.
Dominating the unit set is a large circle symbolizing the heavenly bodies and the cycle of life itself — which in this opera reverses course from the reign of death to a celebration of life and love. The exceptionally effective lighting by Guy Simard, a frequent collaborator with Barb and Doucet, mirrors shifts in the musical mood and transforms the cosmic ring into fluidly enigmatic patterns of waves evoking nature and emotional states alike.
Given the crucial role of Puccini’s choral writing in this score, particularly in the opening act, it’s gratifying to see how cleanly Doucet stages the crowd scenes: he avoids the temptation to fill up the space with a lot of extraneous busyness. Some of the freshest ideas come in the treatment of the trio of government bureaucrats, Ping, Pang, and Pong (Patrick Carfizzi, Julius Ahn, and Joseph Hu, respectively, forming a meticulously well-timed ensemble, with bass-baritone Carfizzi as the winning ringleader). Where their extended sequence at the beginning of the second act can too often seem like tiresome padding, this production has them deliver their behind-the-scenes look at palace life as a clever send-up of show business tropes, from commedia dell-arte clowning (with a dance number in their longjohns) to the “Orientalist” fantasies of Westerners.
Less convincing is the attempt to psychologize Princess Turandot as the victim of ancestral post-traumatic stress whose repressed inner emotions are at last awakened by the successful riddle answerer, the exiled Prince Calaf. Doucet has her touch the Unknown Prince when he hesitates over the final riddle, as if to hint at the answer , and she takes the initiative in kissing him in the moment leading up to her defeat/triumph. Turandot’s unbending androgyny (that is, until the end) is central to her mystique.
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