Puccini’s Ice Princess Thaws in China’s Frozen North

ChinaChina Puccini, Turandot: Soloists, Mu Lan Children’s Chorus, Coro Lirico and Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliano / Giuseppe Acquaviva (conductor). Harbin Grand Theatre Opera House, Harbin, 2.1.2017. (RP)

Harbin Grand Theatre © Iwan Baan.
Harbin Grand Theatre © Iwan Baan.

Turandot – Giovanna Casolla
Emperor Altoum – Giovanni Luca Failla
Timur – Elia Todisco
Calaf – Rubens Pelizzari
Liù – Daniela Carvalho
Ping – Giovanni Di Mare
Pang – Giorgio Trucco
Pong – Blagoj Nacoski
Mandarin – Alberto Munafò Siracusa

Director – Lev Pugliese
Sets – Luciano Ricceri
Lighting designer – Luciano Novelli
Costumes – Casa D’Arte Francesca Pipi
Stage director – Rosella Perrone
Chorus master – Francesco Costa

Known as the ‘Ice City’, Harbin, in the northeasternmost part of China, grew in the late nineteenth century from a small village on the Songhua River (which translates in Manchu to ‘a place for drying fishing nets’) to a city with an international, predominantly Russian, population, spurred by the coming of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Now a city of over five million people, Harbin is an important center for Chinese-Russian trade, with the descendants of those original settlers long since decimated or dispersed as the region roiled with war and ideological conflicts in the past century. It is also home to the Harbin Grand Theatre, designed by the Beijing-based firm MAD Architects ‘in response to the force and spirit of the northern city’s untamed wilderness and frigid climate’. One of the architectural wonders of modern China, the theater, whose interior is seemingly carved out of a massive Manchurian ash tree, is an astoundingly beautiful space.

Lucia Ricceri’s production of Turandot for Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice brought to mind the grandeur of a Cecil B. DeMille movie from Hollywood’s golden era. Massive columns on either side of a three-tiered platform provided a grand, if dark, setting for Puccini’s epic love story. The costumes were traditional. (A lesser man than Calaf would have readily yielded to the temptations offered by the lovely young maidens dressed in flowing diaphanous black robes and what appeared to be little else.) Lev Pugliese’s direction was basically on the level of efficient traffic control. The twists and turns of Turandot and Calaf’s power struggle were telegraphed by their respective placements on the set, ultimately united by love on equal standing on the highest tier. Ping, Pang and Pong’s antics were standard fare, broadly acted and at times teetering toward caricature. Little more was demanded of the chorus than to stand on either side of the stage and sing. Sword-yielding and banner-bearing local supernumeraries added to the pageantry, along with the children’s chorus robed in gold and white.

Rubens Pelizzari has all the makings of a fine Calaf, but he did not sound in prime vocal state, perhaps due to the bitter cold or dangerously high levels of pollution that enveloped the region. There were occasional catches to the voice, and ‘Nessun dorma’ (None shall sleep) did not blaze as one might expect, given the brilliant, supple tenor that is clearly his to command. Daniela Carvalho was a compelling Liù. Her rich lyric soprano, throbbing with emotional intensity in ’Tu che di gel sei cinta’ (You who are girded in ice), was the vocal high point of the performance. Elia Todisco’s Timur was appropriately stalwart in presence and voice, while Giovanni Luca Failla was a youthful, fresh-voiced Emperor, a welcome change in a role too often cast with a singer well past his prime.

It was instead a septuagenarian Turandot that graced the Harbin stage. Giovanna Cassola sang Puccini’s Chinese princess in the production of Turandot staged in Beijing’s Forbidden City in 1998, conducted by Zubin Mehta and preserved on DVD. An illusion of youthful beauty was hers to command, enhanced by the glittery brilliance of her ice-blue robes. The passage of time has bleached the color from her high notes, and pitch sagged (perhaps all but evaporated) in the most challenging phrases of ‘In questa reggia’ (In this palace), a test of any soprano’s stamina. She can still hurl out Turandot’s taunts, threats, riddles and triumphs with intensity and ease, but she is an artist, and this was no vocal slugfest with Pelizzari’s Calaf. Cassola’s echo of Liù’s response to her query as to what compelled her to sacrifice her life for the Unknown Prince was as lovely and fresh sounding as Carvalho’s ‘amore’ (love) that preceded it. There were many such moments to savor.

Giuseppe Acquaviva elicited a dynamically nuanced performance from all concerned, reveling in the exotic colorings of Puccini’s score. The percussion were particularly vivid throughout, perhaps a function of a smaller touring orchestra, and provided as many visceral thrills as did the blazing trumpets. The choral singing was first rate, with the excellent Mu Lan Children’s Chorus raising the energy level a notch or two with the mere presence of their bubbling enthusiasm. Rich sound coupled with spare, effective gestures was provided by the Coro Lirico. Best of all, Italian passion infused the entire evening, providing much needed warmth as a respite from the sub-zero temperatures outdoors.

Rick Perdian

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