By Pat Launer
It’s one part Rumpelstiltskin (‘Guess my name!’), one part Portia (and her riddle-boxes from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”), one part Cruella de Vil.
The opera “Turandot” is based on a 12th century Persian fairy tale and its several international adaptations; these types of fables always have commonalities across cultures.
The title character is an ice queen — well, princess — a fierce man-hater who aims to kill anyone wanting to marry her, in the belief that she is avenging a grossly mistreated ancestor.
Several would-be mates have already lost their heads before the curtain rises on Puccini’s musically beautiful but narratively problematic 1926 opus, which just completed its sixth staging by San Diego Opera.
This was a sumptuous production, lorded over by a massive dragon, emblematic of the ancient Peking setting (designed by Allen Charles Klein; production owned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago). The giant claws of the beast supported the throne of the Emperor (Chad Frisque) and the floating, lighted orb of a full moon (on which Turandot’s one eye was hauntingly projected at times. Presumably, she sees all).
The long-deposed prince Calàf arrives in town, and inadvertently meets up with his aged, wandering, now-blind father, Timur, formerly the King of Tartary. In this production, the blindness is not emphasized, or even noticeable, though Brian Kontes played Timur with considerable heart.
This ousted king is shepherded by the ever-faithful and devoted servant Liù (Angel Joy Blue), who adores Calàf because he once smiled at her in court. She will ultimately give her life to protect him, in the name of love.
But Calàf’s attention is solely on the imperious Turandot, whom he vows will be his.
The fickle townspeople try to warn him to avoid the Princess altogether. But they change loyalties and sentiments with neck-snapping speed, from blood-lust at the outset; to pleas for clemency for the same soon-to-be decapitated suitor; to cries for Calàf to give her up — after he has successfully responded to all three of Turandot’s qualifying riddles — so they won’t all be put to death if the Prince’s identity isn’t discovered; to shouting for the death of Liù, since she’s the only one who knows Calàf’s name.
While the Asian-inspired music is glorious, the storyline (libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni) is seriously problematic, especially as viewed in these #MeToo times.
Turandot establishes the rules of her potential marriage, then refuses to abide by them. But although Calàf offers her an out (he’ll willingly die at dawn if she can’t guess his name by then), he pretty much forces himself on her anyway. And she, having experienced a loving kiss, makes a total, instantaneous turnaround that strains credulity beyond the breaking point.
Stage director Keturah Stickann (a dancer who was a stalwart at Malashock Dance, and principal dancer in his work on “The Pearl Fishers” at SDO and beyond, has provided choreography for several SDO productions, and directed a marvelous “Don Quixote” here in 2014), hasn’t resolved many of the opera’s problems.
The narrative weaknesses, coupled with the woodenness and limited emotionality of American tenor Carl Tanner (making his company debut, though he’s sung the role of Calàf 114 times, by his estimate), do not make the prince a compelling character. He gets the opera’s most famous aria, “Nessum Dorma” (‘None Shall Sleep’), which Tanner sang with verve.
Turandot is a supremely unlikable character, both cold and cruel. American soprano Lise Lindstrom has performed the role all over the world, and twice before in San Diego. Her haughty imperiousness, her strong, supple voice and her wide emotional range were impressive.
But it’s Liù – both the character and the performer — who steals the show. This was Blue’s first time playing/singing the role, and she was magnificent — lovely, aching, heartfelt, with a marvelous, mellifluous voice. Her signature aria, “Signore, Ascolta” (‘My Lord, Listen”), should melt any icy heart (though it doesn’t work on callous Turandot). Last October, Blue made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Mimi in “La Bohème.” San Diego Opera should invite her back to show us more of what she’s capable of.
The wildly disparate costumes (designed by the late Tony Award-winner Willa Kim, who created them in 2005 for the Santa Fe Opera) were another show-stopper — especially the elaborate headpieces: butterflies for the ladies-in-waiting, several extravagant ‘crowns’ for Turandot, the jester’s dangling orbs for the comical ministers Ping, Pang and Pong.
Those three characters (played by Marco Nisticò, Joseph Gaines and Joel Sorensen), remain stereotypes, and, inspired by commedia dell’arte, they weren’t as funny as they could have been. They were most effective in their serious moments, in their trio at the top of Act II (“Ho una casa nell’Honan”), when they became wistful and melancholy, each longing for the peace and tranquility of their former country life.
Stickann’s direction featured some inventive moments (the mimed deaths of several prior suitors; the ascension of Liù’s spirit, affectingly joined by Timur), but also some clumsy ones (the absence of Turandot at the outset and the Emperor at the end, when they’re both clearly sung to directly; the minimally convincing ‘torture’ of Liù; and most jarringly, the immediate, near-total disrobing, crown-throwing and hair-loosening of Turandot as she gives herself over to Calàf after that one — forced — kiss).
Choral director Bruce Stasyna did a wonderful job with the adult and child chorus. Though I love to see lots of San Diegans getting work onstage, the production could have done just as well with probably half as many bodies up there, and that includes the (superfluous and briefly-seen) acrobats.
Conductor Valerio Galli, making his company debut, guided the San Diego Symphony through a lush, earnest rendering of the splendid score.
This opulent production certainly qualified as grand opera; the overall look and sound were majestic (though I remain partial to SDO’s earlier, David Hockney-designed incarnation).
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.