United States Puccini, Turandot: Soloists and orchestra, San Francisco Opera, Nicola Luisotti (conductor), War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 14.9.2011 (HS)
Emperor Altoum—Joseph Frank
A Mandarin—Ryan Kuster
Set Designer—David Hockney
Costume Designer—Ian Falconer
Lighting Designer—Christopher Maravich
Chorus Director—Ian Robertson
It is easy to understand why Iréne Theorin’s name comes up when considering today’s sopranos who can sing Turandot, a role that requires the leather lungs of a Wagnerian Valkyrie and a vulnerability that can make the role work dramatically as well. She has those attributes. Unfortunately, in Wednesday’s performance of Turandot at San Francisco Opera, the Swedish soprano also deployed a wide vibrato whenever she sang louder than mezzo forte, which Turandot must do a lot, and broke up phrases with unexpected breaths. I also found little to like about her natural sound. That’s too bad, because it’s rare to find a Turandot who can sing all the notes and honor Puccini’s dynamics, conveying that vulnerability by singing softly when it’s called for and still letting it all out for the big moments.
Both the good and the no-so-good were evident in her entrance aria, “In questa reggia,” in which she managed to convey both the character’s cruelty and deeply buried desire. At the same time, the climactic high notes came off as shrill. So did other exposed loud phrases throughout the evening. But her willingness to back off and sing piano paid dividends in the final scene, lending some welcome softness to the brassiness of the original ending, written by Franco Alfano after Puccini’s death. This attention to dynamics made Turandot’s 11th-hour conversion to love a bit easier to accept.
Puccini’s final opera sets the story in an unforgettable musical world that seamlessly melds the composer’s potent romanticism and lyricism with harmonic and orchestral gestures that owe more to Stravinsky than Verdi, such as the dissonant, low chords that punctuate the chorus’s hymn to the emperor. The story is, after all, a fairy tale about a seemingly evil princess terrorizing a great nation. The chords convey that dread, as do inventive use of percussion throughout.
Despite some slow tempos here and there, the vivid, riveting conducting of the company’s music director Nicola Luisotti propelled the action most effectively—more so than the cast or the wonderfully colorful stylized sets of David Hockney, first seen here in 1993. From the opening phrases, the sound coming from the pit blazed forth with vitality and nuance. Especially fine was the contrast between the brash, brassy passages and softer, delicate ones, such as the sudden hush that falls over the music as the chorus sings its paean to the rising moon in Act I. Equally wonderful was the nostalgic, tender interlude in the Act II Ping, Pang and Pong scene, when the three clownish functionaries pine for their homes elsewhere in China.
At times, however, Luisotti’s enthusiasm for the glories of the score could tax the singers, which would account for some of the occasional strain showed by both Theorin and her Calaf, Marco Berti. The tenor clearly had the notes and the power, and he could shade the dynamics. His phrasing actually was more nuanced than Theorin’s, but his performance seemed more dutiful than impassioned. “Nessun dorma” passed with no attempt at applause from the audience, although he sang it without difficulty. Granted, the Wednesday night audiences at San Francisco Opera are famous for being tough, but what they got from Berti was simply not inspiring.
Alas, Berti he will never be confused with an actor, either. It didn’t help that director Garnett Bruce seemed intent on keeping Turandot and Calaf as far apart as possible on the stage. In the end, if you don’t believe that Calaf is melting the icy heart of Turandot, something seriously is missing.
Much better all around were the Liù of soprano Leah Crocetto, an Adler Fellow in the company’s young artist program, and the Timur of bass-baritone Raymond Aceto. In her company debut in a main role, Crocetto managed to transcend an unflattering costume that made her look like a Wowkle who wandered in from Fanciulla del West, and sang with plangent lyricism, effectively floating gorgeous high notes in Liù’s heart-tugging arias, “Signore ascolta” in Act I and “Tu che di gel sei cinta” in Act III. Aceto simply offered the most solid vocal performance in the cast, lending gravitas to the exiled king.
The other notable in the cast was baritone Hyung Yun (another alum of the company’s Merola program) asPing, topping the trio solidly and with rich sound. Ian Falconer’s costumes dress Ping, Pang and Pong colorfully but the riot of primary colors makes them come off as clowns. That may suit the bouncy dance music with which they make their entrance, but trivializes their role as the ones trying to dissuade Calaf from becoming Turandot’s next victim. The director’s decision to emphasize the frivolous side didn’t help.
Tenor Joseph Frank delivered the emperor’s pronouncements with feeling, in an appearance that was something of a return full circle. Thirty-four years ago, as a member of the Merola program, Frank sang Pong in a legendary 1977 San Francisco Opera production that starred Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballé. (Carol Vaness was one of the serving maids.)
This evening could not approach the amazing memory of that production, but thanks to Luisotti, the orchestra and the ever-reliable chorus, Puccini got his due. Turandot continues with this cast through October 4, and returns in November with Susan Foster and Walter Fraccaro in the lead roles, and Christian Van Horn as Timur.