Beautiful, Minimalist, Challenging: Puccini’s Turandot

By Andrew Wagner-Chazalon

The Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Turandot is a visually stark, musically lush version of Puccini’s last opera. Director Robert Wilson has given audiences an unorthodox treatment of the work, one which veers steeply between frustrating and thought-provoking.

Wilson has long been known as the international dean of minimalist, stripped down staging. In nearly everything he does, his characters perform in white mask-like makeup, moving so little that his scenes are more like a series of tableaux.

 

COC's production of Turandot on stage in Toronto showing night scene
The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Turandot is visually stunning (Photo: Michael Cooper)

 

His treatment of Turandot stays true to form. The singers rarely face each other or move their bodies in a way that suggest spontaneity; rather, they stand facing the audience, their arms in fixed poses or moving in stylized, almost geometric patterns.

It’s an approach that has some merits, but it’s certainly not for everyone. There were some frustrated mutterings to be heard among the COC audience when Turandot opened on September 28th, and a number of people reached for their coats as soon as the final note rang out rather than staying for the applause.

COC’s Turandot – Fraught With Meaning

Certainly, Wilson’s approach at time seems deliberately designed to frustrate. When a character is pouring out their passionate love for another, or singing of how delightful someone’s lips taste, when they are demanding that someone stop touching them, or crying out in agony while being tortured, we expect them to move in a way that corresponds to what they are singing. When they don’t, the emotional impact of the words and music can be muted, or even completely undercut.

But there are moments when this approach has the opposite effect, and you find yourself seeing – and even more, hearing – the opera in a richer way. When characters move so little, every movement they make becomes fraught with meaning. When the lovesick servant Liu dies under torture, she gently turns to the side and begins to walk upstage – because nobody else has moved this way it becomes a more powerful depiction of death than any overwrought collapse could bring about.

 

Performers onstage at Canadian Opera Company
A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Turandot (Photo: Michael Cooper)

 

During those many moments when the entire cast is standing still and singing, you are also encouraged to give your full attention to the music – which in this production is a great thing. There are some wonderful performances here, both on stage and in the orchestra pit, and it’s a delight to fully immerse yourself in them.

An Operatic Fairytale

Turandot is a fairytale-like story of a beautiful princess. In order to marry her, a suitor must answer three riddles; if he fails, he is executed. Dozens of princes have been beheaded in the years since Turandot’s father, the emperor, implemented this test at the insistence of his daughter. When a visiting prince catches a glimpse of Turandot at one of these executions, he falls hopelessly in love. Despite the pleas of his father and Liu, and despite the advice of three councilors / jesters from the emperor’s court, he determines to face the test.

When he succeeds in answering the three riddles, and it is clear that Turandot still doesn’t wish to marry him, the prince offers her an out: if she can guess his name by morning, she can execute him, but if she doesn’t then they will indeed marry. Turandot demands that the people of the city stay awake all night and help her figure out his name.

 

The incredible set of COC's Turandot with actors
Robert Wilson's direction, design, and lighting bring Turandot to life (Photo: Michael Cooper)

 

Musically, this production is remarkable. Tamara Wilson is a powerhouse in the title role, her voice a column of ice that is absolutely captivating. Russian tenor Sergey Skorokhodov is tremendous as the mysterious prince Calaf, who falls in love with Turandot. He opens the third act with the piece’s most famous aria, Nessun dorma (None shall sleep) and it is majestic.

Soprano Joyce El-Khoury makes a triumphant return to Toronto as the doomed servant Liu. On opening night, she received a well-deserved ovation in the first act, a triumph of dynamic control and tenderness as she sings of her love for Calaf.

Conductor Carlo Rizzi is tremendous, painting a lush, multi-layered tableaux with Puccini’s music. And the performance by the COC chorus – particularly the finales of act one and act two – were emotional highlights of the evening.

The Challenge of Turandot

The story of Turandot been traced back to Persian writers of the 7th century and has been retold many times. Giacomo Puccini set it in China, which causes some problems for modern audiences – when he was writing in 1924, most Europeans did not have a particularly nuanced understanding of China, viewing it rather as simply an exotic east.

Some productions have only made matters worse, turning it into an offensive “yellowface” farce of faux chinoiserie. The COC and Robert Wilson have done much better, including asking Richard Lee – an actor, writer and fight director of Chinese heritage who sits on the company’s equity, diversity and inclusivity committee – to serve as a production consultant and advise the creative team.

One of the few actual changes to the opera is to rename the councillors, Ping, Pang and Pong. They provide comic relief and an element of slapstick, but their faux-Chinese names are simply offensive. In this production they are renamed Bill, Bob and Jim. The racist overtones of their names is eliminated, although it does raise a question of artistry. Why not westernize the names but retain a lightly amusing alliteration? Bill, Bob and Jim sound like placeholder names, thrown on the page until someone could think of something better.

Still, the roles are sung beautifully by Adrian Timpau, Julius Ahn and Joseph Hu. And in this production, voices are what it is all about.

Turandot is at the COC until October 27th.  The other fall production is Dvorak’s Rusalka, which runs from October 12thto 26th.

The season continues in January with The Barber of Seville.

For further details of the COC’s production of Turandot, as well as other upcoming performances, events and related things to do, visit their website at www.coc.ca.

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Andrew Wagner-Chazalon is Editor and CEO at Dockside Publishing. For more great happenings in Muskoka, Georgian Bay, Kawartha, and the Lake Simcoe area, be sure to pick up the 2019 edition of Lakeside magazine. Visit their website at  www.docksidepublishing.com.