Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquaries Point, Sydney
March 24, 2016

The Turandot story has a complex history. The tale first appears in The Seven Beauties, an erotic epic by the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi, written in 1197. Puccini picked it up via Friedrich Schiller’s moralistic 1801 adaptation of a subversive commedia del arte play by Carlo Gozzi. It is therefore an Italian composer’s view of a German poet’s take on an Italian comedy based on a Persian-eye view of Chinese history. Culturally complicated? Perhaps. But Puccini cared a great deal about imbuing his work with ‘authentic’ elements and his final opera, written between 1920 and 1924 and famously incomplete at the time of his death, is full of genuine Chinese tunes and a clanging array of representative percussive effects.

Benjamin Rasheed (Pang), Luke Gabbedy (Ping), John Longmuir (Pong) and Arnold Rawls (Second cast Calàf)

For Opera Australia’s fifth Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, Lyndon Terracini went back to basics by hiring China-born, New York-based director Chen Shi-Zhen, a man skilled in both Chinese theatrical disciplines and epic theatre (he came to prominence with the 20-hour Kunqu opera, The Peony Pavilion, at Lincoln Center in 1999). As such, he’s ideally placed to nip any cultural cringe in the bud and deliver a memorably grand night of operatic spectacle. And that is precisely what he does thanks to an excellent cast, a stunning chorus and a staging that holds the eye by relying on design and movement rather than on gimmickry and technical sleight of hand.

Dan Potra’s chilly, metallic set consists of a wicked-looking barbed pagoda (reflecting the frigid Princess with her penchant for diabolical whips and hooks), and a sly Chinese dragon crouching low on stage right, its curled tongue almost within licking distance of the audience. It is effortlessly built to take Scott Zielinski’s imaginative lighting design and it does so spectacularly with some breath-taking, mood-mirroring changes (try the stunning scene of the three riddles). Potra’s pagoda allows Turandot to appear at awe-inspiring height. Unfortunately, its platform, which lowers and rises like a drawbridge, has the kind of nasty wobble that makes an audience fear for a singer’s safety, but it redeems itself by opening magnificently at the end like a phallic flowering lotus to reveal the two lovers united in perfect yin and yang. The dragon’s flank meanwhile forms a wall redolent of The Forbidden City and is the canvas for Leigh Sachwitz’s mostly effective animated projections. Its terrifying head exhales an impressive burst of fire, which could be easily felt at 50 metres.

Conal Coad (Timur) and Eva Kong (Liù)

Chen’s efficient staging brings traditional Chinese elements to bear on an essentially 21st-century style. His whirling, martial arts-inspired choreography (think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) allows 18 men and women to fill the acting area when required in contrast to more prop-heavy productions that rely on physical grindstones, swaying palanquins and buffed executioners. He has the occasional misstep – the crucial kiss was tame and the blocking of the aftermath curiously anti-climactic – but generally this is a fine, traditional feeling Turandot with discerning costumes that glitter without being gaudy. There are the usual Handa Opera bonbons and crackers – a flying mandarin, ditto the Emperor Altoum – and there are at least two less crass places to have put the fireworks than right after the essentially reflective Nessun dorma, but it would be curmudgeonly to begrudge the odd crowd pleaser when the director has clearly thought hard about balancing the intimate with the ‘in your face’.

The composer’s score – did he ever come up with a more dazzling sequence of tunes one after the other? – receives a decent workout from Brian Castles-Onion and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra entombed as they are beneath the stage like musical terracotta warriors. Tony David Cray’s sound design is very loud indeed at times, but on the whole it’s pretty good. There is the odd balance issue between sections, however, and we never quite hear all of Puccini’s more exotic percussion (he calls for timpani, cymbals, gong, triangle, snare drum, bass drum, tam-tam, glockenspiel, xylophone, bass xylophone, tubular bells, tuned Chinese gongs and wood block!) On the minus side, to facilitate no interval between Acts I and II (why?), there are a few cuts, and one particular ugly and intrusive one in the masks’ scene, which hacks a bleeding chunk out of Puccini’s most alluring sequence of Chinese melodies. Whoever sanctioned that one deserves to be boiled in oil!

Turandot isn’t an easy sing, nor is it simple to cast, so Opera Australia is fortunate in having an exemplary line-up of principals supported by one of the finest choruses in the world. As the frosty titular Princess, the marvellously named Dragana Radaković is a real find. A Serbian dramatic soprano of fearsome power and laser beam intonation, she’s only been singing the role for two years, but surely must rank among the finest Turandots today. She may not capture all of the vulnerability – always hard to mine from within Puccini’s cripplingly demanding vocal writing – but her inexorable ascent towards the culmination of In questa reggia is a thing of wonder, her tone steady, her top notes steely and thrilling. Clad in icy whites and blues, she is as visually arresting as she was musically.

As Prince Calaf, the Italian tenor Riccardo Massi seems to be channelling his hero Franco Corelli in a stylish performance of enormous vocal passion. In a lyrical reading of the role, he eschews relentless heroics to convey a more nuanced reading than is sometimes the case. A bronzed lower register rises to a secure, tastefully produced upper register and his rendition of that aria is textbook, culminating in a perfectly judged top B. His optional top note toward the end of Act II (many Calafs bottle out here) was beautifully taken, gracefully caressing the high C but never milking it. At six foot four he’s a commanding physical presence as well.

Riccardo Massi (Calàf), Dragana Radakovic (Turandot)

Hyeseoung Kwon reprises her signature role of Liù, instantly winning the hearts of the audience with an elegant dramatic interpretation and refined singing of great delicacy. A lovely piano top is crowned with some fine lyrical singing in both scene and aria. She occasionally suffers from the sound engineer’s tendency to turn up the volume in more intimate arias (Signore, ascolta! could be more subtly amplified, as can Calaf’s Non piangere, Liù and parts of In questa reggia), but her torture scene is powerfully effective and her sudden suicide caused the audience member next to me who was new to this opera to gasp out loud.

As Ping, Pang and Pong, the dynamic trio of Luke Gabbedy, Benjamin Rasheed and John Longmuir are outstanding, singing with style and mastering their busy choreography with aplomb. Gabbedy puts in a beautiful Ho una casa nel Honan, only spoiled by the clumsy cut, which wrecked the reflective musical payoff. Conal Coad makes a decent dramatic and vocal showing in the rather monochrome role of blind old Timur, David Lewis is a powerful-voiced Emperor and Gennadi Dubinsky a wobbly mandarin (his second appearance falls victim to an unobtrusive cut).

Of course, the glory of any production of Turandot is the chorus who dominate Act I and provide vital colour in Acts II and III. From the first utterance, which genuinely raised the hairs on my arms, the 48-strong OA Chorus powers its way through the most demanding passages with energy, strength and musicality. Insensitive sound engineering sapped the atmospheric offstage effect at the start of Act III, but otherwise (and despite the absence of boys voices to precede the Princess’s first appearance), they showed once again why they are the jewel in OA’s musical crown.

Handa Opera is a commendable leveller and among the diverse crowd it was good to see Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull – the first time I can recall seeing a sitting Prime Minister at the opera. As we jostled for the exit, I wound up alongside the PM and took the opportunity to inquire if they had enjoyed the show. “I did. It was great!” enthused Mr Turnbull, while his wife described it as “absolutely beautiful”. And that pretty much sums up Chen Shi-Zheng’s Turandot – a show that should please opera buffs and thrill seekers alike.

Turandot is double cast and runs on Sydney Harbour until April 24.

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