Seattle Opera's enthralling 'Turandot'

Puccini's last opera contains some of his finest music, plus a daunting maze of puzzles and challenges. This production is up to the test.
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Lori Phillips as Turandot, and Antonello Palomi as Calaf.

Puccini's last opera contains some of his finest music, plus a daunting maze of puzzles and challenges. This production is up to the test.

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.

Puccini himself was unable to solve the ultimate puzzle his opera poses: the transition from the mythic to the human. The great master of emotional realism in his earlier verismo landmarks, Puccini deliberately set himself the challenge of animating this legendary material “by way of the modern mind.” But he died in 1926, from complications of treatment for throat cancer, before he could complete the pivotal final scene. The standard solution, as in this production, is to use the version crafted by the Italian composer Franco Alfano for this scene using Puccini’s sketches.

Had Puccini lived, instead of the duet we now hear between Turandot and Calaf, he may have written music that could have rivaled the final scene of Siegfried, in which the former warrior maiden Brunnhilde similarly resists and then gives in to her sexual awakening as a human. The music Puccini did complete for this opera, after all, is his most adventurous and innovative. 

Seattle Opera has returned to its model of alternating principal casts this season, and both feature notably different strengths. The linchpin of the opening night cast on Saturday was tenor Antonello Palombi, a familiar figure to audiences here. His Calaf had inexhaustible, leather-lunged stamina, easily vanquishing not only the Ice Princess but Puccini’s massive reinforcements of brass and percussion. Subtlety wasn’t the point in his impetuous, passionate singing, which well suits a character whose obsession with making Turandot love him is the mirror image of her monomaniacal androgyny. Sunday’s Calaf, Luis Chapa, revealed more vulnerability and sang with warmth but didn’t match the sheer visceral power of Palombi’s high notes.

Lori Phillips is a much-touted Turandot with imposing stage presence, but her voice took some time to settle in, tending in her first scene toward stridency at the top, where Puccini situates so much of the heroine’s fiendishly difficult vocal line. Her fine acting and ability to color her voice showed a real sensitivity to Puccini’s musical subtexts. For her performance of the title role on Sunday, Marcy Stonikas, a former Seattle Opera Young Artist, showed remarkable control and focus across her range and vividly embodied the “freezing ice that will burn” which underlies Turandot’s enigmatic passion.

The pair of Liùs made for a fascinating contrast: Saturday’s Lina Tetriani delineated her arc from humble slave girl in the beginning of the opera to her brave confrontation with Turandot, while in the Sunday matinee Grazia Doronzio opted for a touching pathos reminiscent of Puccini’s earlier suffering verismo heroines, tapering her high notes with a sweet sadness.

Both casts include Seattle Opera veteran Peter Kazaras as the aged Emperor Altoum, chagrined by his daughter Turandot’s cruelty. Ashraf Sewailam brings a formidable physical and vocal presence to his role as the Mandarin. Seattle Opera’s Chorus, given an unusually hefty role in this work (prepared by Beth Kirchhoff), was in spectacular form for its multiple assignments here, from the spectral apparition of Turandot’s former victims to epic assemblies of the people.

Another cornerstone of this production’s success is the work of Asher Fisch. Officially Seattle Opera’s Principal Guest Conductor, Fisch consistently performs at such a high level that it’s been frustrating to have him so intermittently in the pit (his last assignment here was Tristan two years ago). Fisch, conducting the Italian repertoire in Seattle for the first time, gets the richness and adventurousness of Puccini’s score beyond its brassy, percussive accents and was deeply attentive not just to every nuance, but to its role in the unfolding drama. He’s also a quintessential singers’ conductor, shaping the ebb and flow of Puccini’s lyricism with warmth and spontaneity.

It’s been a tough year for the company, which recently had to cut back on previously announced plans for the next two seasons. But this production —dedicated to the opera house’s namesake, the late Marion Oliver McCaw Garrison — marks a hopeful start to the new season. It’s good to know that for the next production (Beethoven’s Fidelio) as well as next summer’s Ring, Fisch will be back in the pit.

If you go:  Seattle Opera’s production of Turandot runs through August 18 at McCaw Hall,  321 Mercer St., 206-389-7676.


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