Opera Queensland, with The Queensland Orchestra, present Puccini’s Turandot to Brisbane audiences with mixed results. The design elements such as set and costume were inspiring, and the music was powerful; yet the dramatic tension in the story was poorly constructed.
Turandot is the tale of a stunningly beautiful Chinese Princess, who vows to take revenge on all men for the atrocities committed upon her ancestor in years past. Every suitor who asks her hand in marriage must answer 3 riddles – if he cannot, he dies. Many suitors have tried and failed. Calaf, son of the exiled King of Tartary, Timur, sees the Princess Turandot at the execution of yet another suitor, and instantly falls for and determines to win her hand in marriage. Timur, and his faithful slave, Liu, who is enamoured of Calaf (because he once smiled at her), try to desuade him, yet to no avail. Thus Calaf presents himself for the trial and the riddles begin.
The show was visually impressive. The fantastic set and costumes were a credit to designer Kristian Fredrikson, whose grand scale sets and opulent costumes empowered and personified the characters and the story. The set, with its giant masked face, and intricately interweaved gold dragons, was as intimidating as it was beautiful – a reflection of Turandot’s violently vivid personality. The sheer scale and size of each element of the design, right down to the suspended crown hanging above the Emperor’s head, magnified the power and status of the characters. More important characters were placed at different heights, so that when Turandot and Calaf meet in Act II, she towers above him and is wheeled around the stage, giving the impression that she glides. Act II saw an incredible feat in theatrical design which The Emperor sat nearly 18 feet high with rolls of luscious orange fabric descending all the way to the ground. The design was inspired and allowed the story to be easily conveyed, despite the language difference.
Puccini’s score, which was incomplete at his death, and thus consequently completed by Franco Alfano, followed the same desires as his Madama Butterfly, as he tried to be authentic to Eastern music, yet Westernised enough to appeal to early European audiences. This curious blend in musical heritage – east meets West, Puccini meets Alfano – produces an eclectic and powerful sound. The infamous aria Nessun Dorma was breathtaking to behold, and the musical interludes with Ping, Pong and Pang were quaint and intricate.
Hye Seoung Kwon (Liu) stole the audience’s hearts with her sweet voice and gentle performance. While Cynthia Makris (Turandot) was powerful, she often bordered on overbearing and too melodramatic at times. Seoung Kwon tempered her melodrama with subtlety. Its possible that she was just a more likeable character, but her performance certainly won more hearts than Makris. Marian Talaba as Calaf reminded me of the nice boy at school who is friends with everyone and is nice to all the girls – an every-man. Talaba gives his character an approachability, which is in great contrast to Turandot’s fierceness, however it did add to my disbelief that this man would actually fall for a woman like that…
With a great score and inspiring design, it was a let-down that some of the dramatic action was not so inspired. Moments such as in Act II when Turandot powerfully declares to Calaf that she despises men, and belts out her aria towards the lost suitor, the audience witnesses a person shrouded in black appear not-so-subtly behind Calaf as he leans back on the man-in-black ‘Matrix-style’ at the power in her voice, as if she could knock him down with what she said, frustrated me. It was unnecessary. It not only looked clumsy, but it was clichéd. When Calaf leant back, all the courtiers also fell to ground. If the intention was to demonstrate Turandot’s powerful voice, why not have Calaf at least take a knee and humble himself before her? Why such an awkward choice? These sorts of awkward moments abounded in the production. Ping, Pong and Pang were given a series of dated and uninspired 'dance' moves which, performed by non-dancers, just looked awkward. While I can understand that the physical action undertaken in opera must be kept simple due to the need for an open airway, I do not believe that simple necessarily means unimaginative, which is what much of the physical action was.
Like other critics before me, I was also frustrated by the dramatic content of the work. Call me a cynic, maybe I just don’t believe in love at first sight, but the characters of this opera are incredibly two-dimensional and only capable of two ideals – love or fear. Yet in real life, love is so much more complex and mingled with so many other dimensions. This ‘all or nothing’ attitude took away from the dramatic tension because the characters intentions were too obvious, and there was no intrigue, nothing to keep you connected.
The polarities within the characters’ own personalities is also completely incredible. Take Turandot: here is a woman, fearful of a man’s touch and adamant that she is not going to be dominated or owned by any man, who is being pursued by a man who continues to state “I will have her, she will be mine”. Any wonder she’s scared! And then she capitulates to the dominating man, after a single kiss, which is forced upon her. Liu is Turandot’s opposite – completely devoted to the idea of love to the point where she, too, capitulates to the same man’s desires, although in her case his desires ultimately mean her death. As a modern woman, I found these women so frustrating!
Purely for the music and the visual qualities of this production it is worth seeing. However if you’re interested in a gripping drama with inspiring characters, then isn’t the show for you.
by Giacomo Puccini
Venue: Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre
Dates: 18, 23, 25, 28, 30 October and 1 November, 2008
Tickets: from $50
Bookings: qtix 136 246 or online www.qtix.com.au