Puccini: Turandot

San Francisco Opera

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 17 September 2011 4 stars

SFO Turandot Since its premiere at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1926, under the baton of Arturo Toscanini, Turandot has existed in various versions and incarnations, some distinctly more "colourful" than others. Despite the occasional dramatic restaging, such as Christopher Alden's corrugated iron and Nazi conception, most productions have tended to stay relatively faithful to a roughly "period" staging, which means one that replicates early twentieth-century chinoiserie.

This co-production with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which is directed by Garnett Bruce, with sets by the British artist David Hockney and costumes by Ian Falconer, tries something rather different. This is its fourth outing at the San Francisco Opera, and although Hockney's sets were originally groundbreaking in their jagged shapes and bright blocks of red and green, rather than the usual elaborate pastiche Chinese decor, its long afterlife (the original production was in Chicago in 1992) has blunted its avant-garde edge. This is partly because such modernist gestures have now been canonised in art history, and so do not cut across the onstage kitsch in the way they once did. But the sets are still highly effective, adding a cleanness and concision to the opera's impact.

The array of costumes is slightly less coherent: Timur (Raymond Aceto) looked like something out of The Lord of the Rings, with his waist-length beard, wizard gown and staff; the bald children processing at the execution scene of Act 1 recalled Star Trek; and most of the chorus were in traditional Chinese costumes, conical hats and all. Most problematically, the executioners (and later Liù's torturers) were burly men wearing no more than brief sumo wrestling garb. As if there wasn't enough Orientalist cliché in the music and plot to give Edward Said a field day, it seems you can't have death without sadomasochistic erotica. This mishmash of costuming jarred with the centralising vision of the set design, although there is also something strangely fascinating in visual opulence that began and ended with the characters.

SFO TurandotThere were also a few issues with choreography, particularly as regards Calaf (Marco Berti): he was made to spend almost the entire time he wasn't singing with his back to the audience. Thus any expression or intimacy was lost, which meant he always remained a rather detached character for whom we were never given a chance to understand his decisions, or even to read his face. Granted, this makes "Nessun dorma" all the more powerful – it being the first proper chance we've had to engage with him – and although he doesn't really act the aria, his singing carries the expressive weight of the moment alone. But his physical positioning also creates some problems for the drama. A farcical instance is when Turandot recites the riddles that will determine whether Calaf can marry her. When Turandot sings, Calaf has his back to us and so we cannot judge his reaction, but then when he responds to her he turns to face the audience and now has his back to her. His flitting back and forth for practical reasons destroys the audience's immersion in the scene.

Regardless of these quibbles, there was some superb singing. Adler Fellow Leah Crocetto's Liù stole the audience's attention from the outset, with her "Signore, ascolta" an emblem of crystalline delicacy and mellifluous power. The blending of her voice with the orchestra - particularly the woodwind – was magical. Crocetto clearly has a great career ahead of her. Ping (Hyung Yun), Pang (Greg Fedderly) and Pong (Daniel Montenegro)'s singing, whilst not always of the greatest accuracy, managed to strike a good balance between humour and tenderness. The finesse of their singing at times added a depth to the characterisations that rendered them more than mere stereotypes, and brought out subtleties of the musical accompaniment that are often lost. Berti's voice was impressive from the outset, and grew more so as the opera unfolded. By the beginning of Act 3 his voice had taken on a marvellous resonance that added breadth to his sheer vocal force.

SFO TurandotIn this performance, the long wait for Turandot's voice was richly rewarded. Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin's moments of Wagnerian vocal power during "In questa reggia" were regal indeed, and some more vulnerable moments effectively hinted at her later shifting of affections. She gets the balance between tenderness and power exactly right, and for once the idea that a princess who orders the men who love her to be executed and yet who ultimately falls in love seems genuinely convincing.

The chorus, directed by Ian Robertson, deserves special mention for the impressive dynamic ranges they maintained throughout. There were some wonderful moments of spine-tingling quiet singing and others of breathtaking power, especially at the end of Act 1. And although they were sometimes drowned out by the orchestra – in particular during their accompaniment to Calaf in "Nessun dorma" – their sonorous underpinning gave the whole opera a powerful emotive resonance. Musical director Nicola Luisotti's pace for the aria was riveting, and he clearly has a great connection with the players. Although there are moments of period kitsch, much of the music is strikingly forward-looking, surprisingly modernist even – something that is often overlooked. Luisotti expertly brought out and drew attention to these moments, creating a more meaningful relationship with the sets than the rest of the production.

This Turandot is a must see. If there is a problem, then, it is that we have become rather annulled to the effect of Hockney's sets, and yet the production carries on as if we haven't. There doesn't seem to be much of an attempt at a creative engagement between the backdrop and what happens in front of them, but the former can't really stand alone anymore. Such a distinctively modern art ages quickly, even if it still ostensibly works. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary gala of the San Francisco Opera, and with Turandot placed centre stage in the proceedings (it opened the season on Friday night), it might have been nice to have something new, something for 2011, and something that moves beyond Hockney's sets and more critically assesses the embarrassing moments of Orientalist chinoiserie. Still it is not often you come across such a combination of world-class singers and first-rate orchestral playing.

By Harriet Boyd

Photos credits: Cory Weaver

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DomingoRelated articles:

Plácido Domingo in conversation with Gockley and the SF press (2011)
Nicola Luisotti Interview with the SF Opera Music Director
Cyrano de Bergerac with Domingo at the San Francisco Opera (2010-11)
Heart of a Soldier at the San Francisco Opera (2011-12)