Turandot, SF Opera

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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By Giacomo Puccini (with additional music by Franco Alfano)
Libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni
Designed by David Hockney
Directed by Garnett Bruce
Conducted by Nicola Luisotti
San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House
Sept. 9-Oct. 4, 2011

Opera has its share of bad girls; think “Salome,” “Carmen” or “Lulu.” But none may be quite as bad as the title character in “Turandot.” Puccini’s homicidal heroine tortures her suitors with impossible riddles by day; executes them at moonrise; and then tosses their heads to a gleeful populace as bloodthirsty as she. Not a very nice person, Princess Turandot. But she does get to wear gorgeous costumes and sing beautifully—especially if she is Iréne Theorin, headliner of San Francisco Opera’s current revival and, since Birgit Nilsson is no longer with us, possibly the leading Turandot of our time.

Based on an 18th-century play by Carlo Gozzi, who was partial to fairy tales (he also wrote “The Love for Three Oranges,” set by Prokofiev for the operatic stage), “Turandot” tells the improbable story of a woman so averse to wedlock that she becomes a serial murderess and the (rather thick-headed) prince who is determined to break down her defenses at any cost, including the lives of innocent bystanders. Not a pleasant tale, especially if you view it with an overlay of abuse of power by the exalted few over the impoverished many.

But then there is the music, lush and swelling and cleverly peppered with minor chords and other hints of chinoiserie. (I must admit, the giant onstage gong struck by the contenders for the princess’ hand is one of my all-time favorite effects). Puccini died before he finished this work and the final love duet and brief conclusion were penned by Franco Alfano (“Cyrano de Bergerac”) at the request of the Puccini estate. And, in this production, shared with Lyric Opera of Chicago, there are those magnificent, color-saturated sets by British artist David Hockney. I remember first seeing them at Lyric more than two decades ago and my colleague John von Rhein’s comment in the Chicago Tribune: “You can almost sing the sets.”

And there are processions and beautiful fabrics and lots of supers and dancers waving ribbon banners (choreography by Lawrence Pech) and even a little comedy, courtesy of three clownish courtiers, Ping, Pang and Pong—sung by Hyung Yun, Greg Fedderly and Daniel Montenegro, respectively. Actually, the “Ping, Pang, Pong” scene, which opens Act II, is my favorite in the whole piece, as the three counselors bemoan the state of things in China and yearn to return to the peace of their homes in the countryside, all to some of the loveliest music Puccini ever wrote. Then they go back to being clowns.

In addition to Theorin, outstanding work is done by Adler Fellow soprano-in-training Leah Crocetto as the loyal slave Liu and Raymond Aceto as the blind Timur, dethroned king of the Tartars and father to Calaf, “the unknown prince.” Tenor Marco Berti, this production’s Calaf, was disappointing. He barely moved onstage and, while his singing was decent, famed set pieces like “Nessun Dorma”—the big Pavarotti hit—were less than thrilling. Hard to see why Turandot fell for this guy, unless she was just getting tired of cutting off people’s heads.

Nevertheless, “Turandot” is laden with gorgeous soaring melody; the Act I closer, “Non piangere Liù,” was heart-stopping—as it always is—ending with Calaf sounding that gong to let the cruel princess know that another suitor has come calling. The San Francisco Opera Chorus, under Ian Robertson, and orchestra, led by Nicola Luisotti, took well-deserved bows. Although they have been in service for a few too many years, I walked out, humming the sets.

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