A visual spectacle

A visual spectacle
by Sandra Bowdler
Puccini: Turandot
Opera Australia, State Theatre, Melbourne
14 December 2006

Elizabeth Connell has made many trips to Australia, since her first appearance as the Kostelnicka in Jenufa in Sydney over thirty years ago, and it seems fitting that she should choose to debut as Turandot here. For the occasion, Opera Australia has brushed up its production by dancer and choreographer, Graeme Murphy, designed by the late Kristian Fredrikson and overseen for this revival by another dancer-choreographer, Kim Walker. There is no doubt that this must be one of the most spectacular operatic productions to populate an Australian operatic stage, and it is certainly a crowd-pleaser, even if somewhat over the top for some tastes.

Puccini’s opera is famously problematic on a number of fronts. On the one hand, the libretto can be read as entailing a level of romantic contradiction. Turandot, the icy marriage-denying princess is contrasted with the selfless loving slave girl Liù, who dies nobly but whose death has no effect whatsoever on the outcome, leaving the princess quite unmoved and the hero undeterred from his efforts to gain the latter’s hand. On the other hand, Puccini died before completing the opera, leaving Franco Alfano to round it off with a chorus, from the people who opened the opera howling for blood, celebrating the power of love. Would Puccini have endeavoured to resolve these ambiguities, had he lived? And just how comfortable should we be with the Chinese people depicted as the epitome of barbaric splendour? As it is, in performance the narrative is so headlong, the orchestration so powerful and, in this case, the production so busy, that one barely has time to contemplate the deeper meaning of the work.

A major motif in Murphy’s vision is the fan, as good an oriental signifier as any, which features on the curtain before it rises on a roiling throng in semi-darkness, deployed before a backdrop of carved dragons. A mandarin (Shane Lowrencev) appears in white, announcing the task of the three riddles and impending death of a failed applicant, and then glides off on some sort of travellator. The background dragons disappear, to be replaced by a vaguely Buddhist-like face, touched in blue and gold – rarely in fact does any backdrop hang around for long. The emperor (Christopher Dawes) is revealed as a dignified head protruding from the top of an enormous gold hive-like object, and it is from this that Turandot appears on wheeled stilts covered by a glistening white gown in Act II. The gong struck by Calaf is, naturally, enormous and fills up the back of the stage. Amidst all this gigantism, the diminutive Calaf and particularly Liù are veritable pigmies. In the last act, Calaf has to wade through purple billows, before the finale when all is golden, including the confetti falling from above. Rarely is the stage not filled with masses of figures, always in movement: the „picturesque Chinese crowd“ (as the libretto has it), semi-naked executioner’s assistants, learned scribes, children’s choruses, funeral processions … it is a tribute to the choreographic skills of the directors that these bodies move about smoothly and efficiently. This is definitely an opera for those who like colour and movement.

Orchestrally, conductor Tom Woods puts Orchestra Victoria through its paces, bringing out all the colours of the score, and generally attentive to the needs of the singers, although they famously need lungs of brass to get above its sheer size. The Opera Australia Chorus and Children’s Chorus all manage to sing well while weaving their way on, off and around the stage, each other and the numerous supernumeraries. This applies also to Ping (John Pringle), Pang (Graeme Macfarlane) and Pong (Kaneen Breen), who are called on in their Act II tableau to carry around futon-like objects which they furl and unfurl around themselves, lie on, sit on and get carried around on, much to the entertainment of the audience but, one fears, at the expense of anyone taking much notice of what they have to sing, one of the more poignant moments of the opera as they lament their quiet lives in the country.austurand1206B
The core of the work is of course Turandot herself, and, vocally, Elizabeth Connell carried the day. In questa reggiabegan with a few rough notes, but the voice soon settled into a smooth legato line, and Connell’s gleaming soprano soared effortlessly above the orchestra to provide the thrilling vocal experience that can redeem this work. Connell is also a competent actor, and made the melting of the distant and cruel princess at Calaf’s touch into a woman of warmth and passion just about believable.

Dennis O’Neill is a veteran verismo tenor, who has essayed Calaf previously, but his acting is somewhat on the stiff side. He is still able to ride the orchestra, and his voice blended well with Connell’s. His Nessun dorma was well executed, achieving the high notes accurately, and well-received, but there was something of a wobble in his voice.

The pathetic slave girl Liù was sung by Australian spinto Rosamund Illing, whose voice is surprisingly powerful for such a tiny frame.Signore, ascolta was not entirely successful, as her voice seemed unwilling to take directions, scooping up into notes of somewhat uncertain pitch. Her interpretation of the role seemed overly perky for the quiet long-suffering doormat Puccini seems to have envisaged. By the time of the suicide scene however things had become steadier, and her Tu che di gel sei cinta was sung with creamy tone and most movingly.

Turandot is a far cry from the pure romanticism of La bohème et al., and it is hardly one of the more cerebral operas, but it remains a popular member of the repertoire, no doubt due to its lush orchestration and potential for great spectacle and great singing. Opera Australia has certainly turned on the visual spectacle for this production, and in Elizabeth Connell is has a Turandot who can carry it off where it counts.
Text © Sandra Bowdler
Photos © Jeff Busby

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