Seattle’s Turandot: More Than Just Spectacle

United StatesUnited States Puccini, Turandot: Seattle Opera, soloists, Asher Fisch (conductor), McCaw Hall, Seattle, 4 & 5/8/2012 (BJ)


A Mandarin: Ashraf Sewailam (bass-baritone)
Liù: Lina Tetriani (soprano)/Grazia Doronzio (soprano)
Prince Calaf: Antonello Palombi (tenor)/Luis Chapa (tenor)
Timur: Peter Rose (bass)
Ping: Patrick Carfizzi (bass-baritone)
Pang: Julius Ahn (tenor)
Pong: Joseph Hu (tenor)
Handmaidens: Jennifer Bromagen (soprano)
Karen Early Evans (soprano)
Emperor Altoum: Peter Kazaras (tenor)
Princess Turandot: Lori Phillips (soprano)/Marcy Stonikas (soprano)


Renaud Doucet (director/choreographer)
André Barbe (set and costumes)
Guy Simard (lighting)
Joyce Degenfelder (hair and makeup)
Beth Kirchhoff (chorus master)
Philip A. Kelsey, David McDade, Jay Rozendaal (musical preparation)

“The trick with Turandot,” company general director Speight Jenkins remarked to me as we waited for the curtain to go up on Seattle Opera’s 2012/13 season, “is to make sure that it’s more than just spectacle. That’s what we’ve tried to do.”

Well, the trick has been pulled off to superb effect. The production by the Montreal Island-based team of Renaud Doucet and André Barbe does more than ample justice to the spectacular side of Puccini’s last opera (completed after his death by Franco Alfani), but it also makes the most possible of the work’s relatively minor human interest, so that by the end we were not merely impressed but moved.

Aside from some charmingly nostalgic ruminations by the commedia dell’arte-style ministerial trio of Ping, Pang, and Pong about the country homes they may never see again, the humanity of the piece lies almost exclusively in the loving devotion of the slave-girl Liù. If the putative “hero,” Prince Calaf, had a single sensible bone in his body, he would surely fall in love with her, rather than with the totally repellent personage for whom the opera is named. But Calaf, in strong contrast to Cavaradossi in Tosca, is a character of little human interest – his inability to doubt himself for a moment reminds me forcibly of Margaret Thatcher.

Nevertheless, all the characters in this Turandot, including also the princess herself and Calaf’s father, the dethroned Tartar king Timur, were portrayed – and sung – with absolute conviction and high artistry by both casts. The star of the opening-night show was Lori Phillips in the title role. Her genuinely thrilling soprano cut through the orchestral maelstrom with magisterial ease, she played the man-hating princess with steely hauteur, and she looked great, especially in the Klimt-ish gown she wore in the closing scene. It was good to have, in the second cast, a home-grown Turandot in Marcy Stonikas, a graduate of the company’s Young Artists Program, now sadly put in cold storage on account of financial stringencies. She too made a commanding figure, and sang beautifully, if with not quite the flashing incisiveness of her colleague.

Of the two Calafs, Saturday’s Antonello Palombi demonstrated the greater weight of tenor tone, Sunday’s Luis Chapa the wider range of vocal color. Both made Calaf as sympathetic as his one-dimensional character allows. In dramatic terms Palombi was perhaps the more convincing, because he conveyed the Prince’s lack of imagination the more skillfully, whereas Chapa came across almost too human. Lina Tetriani and Grazia Doronzio were both compellingly expressive and vocally polished as Liù.

Peter Rose sang Timur with beautiful and rock-solid tone, while depicting the frailty of age with almost painful intensity. The three semi-comic ministers, led by Patrick Carfizzi’s assured Ping, delighted the audience. Ashraf Sewailam delivered the Mandarin’s proclamation of the law with impressive strength, and it was a pleasure to see (and hear) Peter Kazaras back on stage as Emperor Altoum.

With arresting and lucid stage direction, and with fluent choreography that was by turns sensual and athletic, Doucet hardly put a foot wrong. His only mis-step. I thought, came at the moment in the third-act duet when Calaf’s kiss melts Turandot’s ice. Here, according to the stage directions, the Prince “seizes Turandot in his arms and kisses her in a frenzy” – but Doucet instead had Turandot run to the Prince and kiss him. Whether or not this was intended as a feminist touch, it made her complicit in her own defeat, contrary to the sense of the story.

Barbe’s sets and costumes were indeed mostly spectacular, but the opening scene of Act 3, with mysterious figures carrying lanterns around a dark stage, was magical in a quite different and fascinating way. What with equally stunning work by Beth Kirchhoff’s chorus and by the orchestra under Asher Fisch’s baton, the production, dedicated to the memory of veteran Seattle Opera benefactor Marion Oliver McCaw Garrison, was altogether a triumph.

Bernard Jacobson