A veritable turducken of cultural misunderstanding, Turandot is a turn of the 20th Century Italian take on a Persian Fairy Tale about Ancient China translated from a German manuscript. It’s up to any opera company to decide how they’re going to approach its problematic layers of racist misassumptions about other cultures. The Lyric Opera has decided to lean in to the Fairy Tale aspects of the story and in doing so has created a spectacle to rival the many fine fantasies produced in recent years by Chinese cinema, like Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Their production of Turandot is simply beautiful. It’s like one of those Chinese screens you find in Chinatown come to life. A thing that borrows gorgeously from Chinese culture, but is clearly designed for a Western audience and not for internal consumption.
The lavish set created by Allen Charles Klein features a giant Chinese Dragon with a crystal in one claw, like one of those Chinatown figurines but on an epic scale. Claws so big, singers stand in them at various points during the production. The steep rake of the stage is beautifully tiered, again to resemble the jade sculptures created for export to the West, or the lack of foreshortening in Asian two-dimensional art. In the second act, carved “branches” reminiscent of Chinese screens are lowered into view, casting gorgeous shadows everywhere. I was really impressed at the thought that went into all of it.
Klein’s costumes also draw beautifully on traditional clothing as depicted in Chinese art. From the uniforms of the Emperor’s guardsmen to the Emperor with his ridiculously long beard, to the Princess’s robes, the flowing lines and colors are wonderfully incorporated. And, like in Hero, there is color coordination among the various groups in order to enhance the pageantry.
It is all brought to life by director Rob Kearley with interesting stage movement by August Tye. I am shocked to find Kearley was the Associate Director of Die Walkure where everyone just stood around for four hours yelling across the stage at each other in German. In this production every single human on that stage has purpose and knows what they’re doing every single minute. From the least chorus member to the blessed Emperor himself, everyone has business and is adding to the impact of the production every time they’re on stage. THAT is how to make compelling theatre. And this version of Turandot is absolutely wonderful because of it. Let this team design and direct more things.
Add to that the really superb performances by the featured singers and this production is truly the Lyric at its finest. Zachary Nelson, Rodell Rosel and Keith Jameson as (Lord help them) Ping, Pang and Pong, own the stage every time they set foot on it. You sort of want to see them take off on their buddy comedy road movie at certain points. That would be a fabulous opera in itself, especially with these three in the roles. Whether they’re pining for home in the bamboo forest or trying to talk idiot hero Prince Calaf out of banging the gong and announcing his intention to woo the cruel Turandot, they sing and act their hearts out. Each is great individually, but together they are unstoppable.
The tag-team of Maria Agresta as Liu and Andrea Silvestrelli, as Calaf’s father, deposed King Timur, are another force to be reckoned with. They steal every scene they’re in. Agresta’s Liu is everything noble and self-sacrificing, pointing out the selfish horror of Turandot. She is the one person on the stage you really like and have great sympathy for and Agresta sings her masterfully. Silvestrelli is wonderful as the befuddled king at the end of his strength. Josh Lovell is also absolutely excellent as the ancient Emperor Altoum and steals the scene away from La Colla’s Calaf. It doesn’t hurt that he’s majestically perched in the dragon’s claw while he does it.
I know that Stefano La Colla has played Prince Calaf again and again throughout his career. And he tackles the role with great energy and confidence, but at the performance I saw, he was straining into his high notes and I wonder if he wasn’t ill. He hit everything, but it was far from effortless. And his biggest moments, including the most sublime tenor aria in all opera, “Nessun Dorma,” suffered for it. I liked him, though. Especially in his interactions with everybody but Turandot.
That’s the great failing of this opera, too. The story is just awful. The two main characters are horrid and unsympathetic and even the greatest singers have a huge challenge in pulling them off. Calaf is an idiot and I didn’t buy his “love” for the princess for one fraction of a second. It looked far more like ambition and a crack at getting out of poverty because La Colla had zero chemistry with Amber Wagner as Turandot.
And let’s talk about Amber Wagner for a minute here. I would listen to her sing the phone book, she has such an utterly glorious voice. I desperately wish her part had contained something to equal “Nessun Dorma,” but the best soprano arias really go to Liu in this one. But every note out of her mouth was solid gold. If this production had only her voice to recommend it, it would still be more than worth the price of admission. She is that gifted a singer.
But she played Turandot as a petulant three-year-old, which is kind of a fair interpretation really, given the way this mess is written. But in being super angry all the time, you just didn’t buy that she’d fallen in love at first sight with Calaf in the big reveal in the end. We saw nothing of that. We didn’t even see her hesitate or be taken aback or do anything but scowl and stomp around. At one point she batted a stool out of her way like Godzilla crushing a balsa wood building and I almost laughed out loud it was so cartoonish. You didn’t see her being won over. She just went from enraged and homicidal to happy to get married in the next second. And over the dead body of Liu, who again, is the only one you like.
When you have a part as muddled as this to play it is super important to sell it. And neither Wagner nor La Colla did. And they are surrounded by singer/actors eking every bit of nuance out of their parts, so it’s a pretty glaring hole in the center of the opera.
But that said, you don’t care. Because as soon as either opens their mouths you want to listen. And there’s so much to look at. This production of Turandot is a great night of entertainment.
It plays now until January 27th. Get your tickets here.
Photographs by Andrew Cioffi and Todd Rosenberg