Music Review: Washington National Opera Mounts Puccini's 'Turandot'

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 18, 2009

It was a dark and glorious spring at the Washington National Opera this year. First there was the bleakness of "Peter Grimes," then the shadows of "Siegfried." So by Saturday night, the company's audience was good and ready for the opulence of Puccini's "Turandot," the season's last opera, which -- though pretty dark itself -- has the advantages of being visually spectacular and perhaps even better, familiar.

Many of those who complained that "Grimes" is too dark have no problem embracing this opera about a bloodthirsty princess who kills all her would-be suitors, and the prince who will stop at nothing, including the death and suffering of those closest to him, to win her. The acceptance level has much to do with the fact that most operagoers can hum along with "Nessun dorma," the showpiece tenor aria in the third act, now known as a standard of TV talent shows and the (soccer) World Cup, thanks to Paul Potts and Luciano Pavarotti.

But it's true that "Turandot" is a pretty fabulous opera. Its music is dense, austere and gorgeous -- at least, as much of it as Puccini himself wrote (he died midway through Act 3). And Andrei Serban's 25-year-old production from Covent Garden, which has traveled around the world before arriving in Washington this weekend, is colorful, fresh and avoids the static pomp most directors use to convey the icy splendor of the Peking court. The opening-night audience in Washington literally howled with pleasure.

Modified rapture here. Serban's production is bright and busy. He sets the action in a traditional Chinese theater with the chorus sitting in balconies around a central stage, often garbed in dun-colored suits evoking uniforms of the Cultural Revolution era. The main events unfold as a spectacular pageant, but small-scale in comparison to the imposing hugeness of most "Turandots."

Costumed dancers twist around the stage and pull wheeled carts bearing some of the main figures: a rickety bamboo structure for the Mandarin (Oleksandr Pushniak), an elaborate vehicle for the Executioner embellished with red dragons and bearing a giant revolving whetstone on which he (large and green, like a 1950s horror-film creature) sharpens his sword with relish. And Ping, Pang and Pong, the opera's perennially annoying trio of sycophant courtiers, are conceived as Chinese acrobat-clowns -- a tall order for classically trained singers, though Nathan Herfindahl, a current member of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, even managed a couple of cartwheels.

Although distracting at times, all of the comings and goings do mitigate the opera's inherent stasis. And though Serban didn't go too far in creating real characters -- the figures remain mainly outlines -- his approach did allow a real focus on intimate moments. There were near-empty stages, in fact, for some of the family scenes with Timur, the old blind wandering ruler (Morris Robinson), and Liu (Sabina Cvilak), the devoted slave girl who guides him partly out of love for his son, Calaf (Dario Volonté). This focus was all the more fitting since Robinson and Cvilak were the strongest singers of the evening, he stentorian, she with a muscular roundness to her soprano.

Threads of the Oedipus story are woven through this "Chinese" tale: Liu echoes Antigone leading the blind Oedipus, while Oedipus's face-off with the Sphinx is recalled in the riddle scene that's the centerpiece of the plot. Turandot asks every suitor three questions, and kills them if they can't answer them. (This is also a link to another of WNO's spring offerings: "Siegfried" also has a scene in which characters wager their lives on their ability to answer three questions correctly.)

One of Serban's best moments, and best characterizations, was depicting the princess's vulnerability and terror of men, which she concealed, badly, behind a brittle facade. It is to the credit of Maria Guleghina, the Russian soprano, that she brought that across. Vulnerability is not generally one of her traits; she tends to sing with a manic quality that can be slightly alarming, and an edge to her sound that can peel paint off walls. But Saturday, even though she was occasionally off pitch or sang with a wobble, those qualities were mostly harnessed in the service of an effective interpretation of the role.

Overall, though, the evening's weakness was the music. The conductor, Keri-Lynn Wilson (who is married to Peter Gelb, the general director of the Metropolitan Opera), made her WNO debut with a pedestrian effort: instead of crisp coordination, a dull roar.

Volonté's Calaf was weak, tight and often inaudible, without any of the ringing authority or impetuosity the role requires. He saved everything for his adequate "Nessun dorma," which made his performance all the more infuriating, since it led one to suspect that he had it in him to deliver a better performance but hadn't applied the focus to do so.

Ping, Pang and Pong were unfortunately cast: Their three voices simply didn't blend. Herfindahl has a fine strong baritone, though a bit callow, but he dwarfed the other two singers, Yingxi Zhang and Norman Shankle. The Emperor Altoum, Robert Baker, had a watery tenor that fit the role beautifully: Thin as eggshell china, it emerged from a figure nearly mummified in splendid gold, descending from above on a golden cloud as befits the son of heaven.

Another of Serban's successful ideas was stopping the action for a minute in Act 3 at the point where Puccini stopped writing, before Franco Alfano's unsatisfying end takes over. (Alfano was long best known for having composed this ending until Plácido Domingo began singing the title role in Alfano's "Cyrano de Bergerac" a couple of years ago. Domingo is about to open in a new production of the opera in Paris this week.)

Faced with the challenge of writing a fabulous love duet, Alfano punted, resorting instead to lots of loud repetition of earlier themes, culminating in the chorus blaring out the climax of "Nessun dorma" and leaving the lovers to remain silent in their blissful embrace.

"Turandot" is a difficult opera to stage because of its inherent contradictions. And perhaps Puccini couldn't find a satisfactory ending after Liu's brutal death: How can you sympathize with either Calaf or Turandot after one of them has tortured her until she commits suicide, and the other has stood by and watched before sending his father callously offstage? Love is supposed to conquer all in this opera, but perhaps the happy ending felt so hollow, after Liu's death, that it crippled its conclusion.

What's left is still a great opera, and this did come through Saturday, in spite of the musical muddle of the performance.

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