Turandot by Puccini review: superb singing, great rendition of the score, but the plot is confusing
A co-production between Hong Kong Opera and New York City Opera, the show was a mixture of great vocal talent, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra’s great rendition of the score and a plot with a few weaknesses.
Puccini’s Turandot returned to Opera Hong Kong’s repertoire for the first time since 2005 as part of the company’s 15th anniversary season.
Musically, there was much to enjoy, with some excellent singing from the principals, outstanding work from the chorus and a fine rendition of the score by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of distinguished opera conductor Paolo Olmi.
As theatre, while there were good moments, overall the production by Michael Capasso, general director of New York City Opera (with which company this is a co-production) suffered from a number of weaknesses.
Turandot is without doubt a hard nut to crack dramatically – left unfinished at Puccini’s death, various composers and librettists have struggled to complete it satisfactorily.
The beautiful yet icy Chinese Princess Turandot is obsessed by the rape and murder of one of her ancestors. To take revenge on men (and protect herself from having to marry) she makes her suitors solve three riddles and has their heads cut off if they fail.
The exiled Prince Calaf falls in love with her and becomes the first to answer the riddles correctly, at which she tries to back out of her bargain. He compromises by saying if she can tell him his name before dawn she can have him executed, if not she must marry him. Calaf’s old, blind father Timur and his faithful slave girl Liu are captured.
Turandot has Liu tortured to reveal the prince’s name, but Liu’s love for Calaf is so great that she kills herself rather than betray him. In the end Turandot admits her love for Calaf and they are united in marriage.
This story is hard to swallow, either logically or morally. However repulsive Turandot’s persecution of men may be, in the #metoo era the idea that discovering the joys of sex with a man is the answer to all her problems (as the libretto makes clear) is unsettling, as is the automatic assumption that since Liu is a slave, Calaf cannot be expected to return her love.
Turandot’s final conversion is as hard to accept as the fact that Calaf remains in love with someone so cruel, even after Liu’s martyrdom.
While no production can wholly overcome these inherent inconsistencies, this one is hampered by basic errors in staging.
In the riddle scene, instead of focusing on Turandot and Calaf, Caprasso puts them at the back of the stage, surrounded by the chorus, so they are barely visible and further distracts attention from the drama by having a group of dancers moving around at the front of the stage.
The stage itself is horribly overcrowded here and in the finale (perhaps in New York this won’t be an issue, given the size of the Grand Theatre stage it should have been avoided here).
Fortunately Liu’s death scene is better conceived and packs a real emotional punch, and the scene where ministers Ping, Pang and Pong reflect on the problems of serving Turandot is wittily done.
More problems stem from the designs: while John Farrell’s monumental Chinese set works well, Ildikó Debreczeni’s costumes are an incoherent mishmash of Chinese and Western, with for some incomprehensible reason the Emperor’s court wearing dunce’s caps and the people of the city wearing carnival masks.
If the plot of Turandot is problematic, the music is magnificent and this was where the production scored strongly.
A convincingly implacable Turandot, Mlada Khudoley has the huge voice the role requires and managed the musical transition from stark (In questa reggia) to lyrical (the duet Del primo pianto) effortlessly.
Gustavo Porta brought comparable vocal power to Calaf and sang a fine Nessun dorma, although he could have been more expressive physically.
Making the most of the opera’s only truly sympathetic roles, Natalya Pavlova was an exquisitely sung and movingly acted Liu and Jeremy Galyon a sonorous and poignant Timur.
In this 15th anniversary year, special tribute should be paid to Opera Hong Kong’s Chorus, who have made increasingly impressive progress under the directorship of Alex Tam.
The choruses in Turandot are a far cry from the straightforward melodies of Verdi and the quality of the singing did full justice to their complexity and power.
Opera Hong Kong
Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre
Reviewed: October 13, 2018