Hockney’s Turandot Returns, Vigorously Refreshed

United StatesUnited States Puccini, Turandot: Soloists, San Francisco Opera / Nicola Luisotti (conductor), War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 12.9.2017. (HS)

Act II Scene 2 of Turandot in the production by David Hockney (Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)
Act II Scene 2 of David Hockney’s Turandot (c) Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera


Turandot — Martina Serafin
Calaf — Brian Jagde
Liù — Toni Marie Palmertree
Timur — Raymond Aceto
Ping — Joo Won Kang
Pang — Julius Ahn
Pong — Joel Sorensen
A Mandarin — Brad Walker
Emperor Altoum — Robert Brubaker


Production and Design — David Hockney
Director — Garnett Bruce
Costume Designer — Ian Falconer
Original Lighting Design — Thomas J. Munn
Lighting — Gary Marder
Chorus Director — Ian Robertson
Choreographer — Lawrence Pech

Rich voices and vigorous conducting are what it takes to make the most of Puccini’s final opera, Turandot, and that’s what it got from the current revival of David Hockney’s boldly colorful production, heard Tuesday at the War Memorial Opera House.

Presented first in 1993, the production underwent a much-needed restoration for its fifth go-round in San Francisco, where the sets were built. Garnett Bruce, who directed the 1998 and 2002 revivals, returned to draw nuances from the cast, who humanized the fairytale story. The lead singers delivered full-blooded music, including Martina Serafin in the title role. Conductor Nicola Luisotti, who steps down later this year as the company’s music director after 10 years on the podium, muscled up on the big moments and let the quieter ones cast their own spell.

But something curious happened. Even with all those elements in place, things didn’t really jell until the third and final act. Oh, the big moments hit all the right marks, including the big choral finales to each act, but something was missing. In Act I it was the pulse—the surges big and small that animate the music and should lead inexorably to the irresistible finale, when Calaf finally rings the gong to announce he will take on the princess Turandot’s riddles to gain her hand in marriage.

In Act II it was the first scene, when Ping, Pang and Pong reflect on cruel life under Turandot. And, truth to tell, Luisotti could have allowed more tension to develop in the silences and nervous stabs that Puccini wrote for the confrontation between the icy princess and Calaf’s ardor.

But with the eerie, scene-setting strains that open Act III, everything seemed to slide into place, flowing seamlessly into Brian Jagde’s virile, beautifully nuanced “Nessun dorma.” The tenor, a product of San Francisco Opera’s Merola program and a former Adler Fellow, demonstrated secure vocal production throughout, with reserves of power not necessarily hinted-at by a burnished, supple lyric tone.

Luisotti did not have to hold back the orchestra for either Jagde or Serafin to be heard. The latter could muscle up her sound without too much of a steely edge, and showed she also was capable of caressing a phrase. “In questa reggia”, the first thing the character sings, Serafin unfurled robust tone and a slight subtext of fear to explain the princess’ strident attitude. Serafin’s presence was imperious, but her face suggested it was all a mask. She seemed especially fascinated with this latest suitor. Jagde’s presence—nobility mixed with an underlying nervousness—also made sense. All that was needed to lift that entire riddle scene to perfection was a little ratcheting-up of orchestral tension.

The preceding Ping, Pang and Pong scene tried to make up for underpowered voices with sheer energy and clownish activity—perhaps inspired by the characters’ white-face clown makeup. With its soft edge, the lyric baritone of Joo Won Kang as Ping did not quite touch all the emotional points this character can convey. As for the tenors, Julius Ahn’s Pang had a tendency to waddle, and Joel Sorenson’s Pong did not, but nothing really distinguished their characters vocally.

They were better in Act III, in which they tempt Calaf to reveal his secret with dancing women and a chest full of jewels (that somehow glowed green), but much better voices made the next scene a step better. As Timur, Calaf’s blind father, bass Raymond Aceto injected remarkably focused sound and a sense of gravitas, and as their slave girl Liu, soprano Toni Marie Palmertree lavished creamy tone and achieved a much-needed vulnerability to go along with her heroic resistance.

Tenor Robert Brubaker (a regular comprimario at the Metropolitan Opera) invested the Emperor Altoum with nobility, and baritone Brad Walker intoned the Mandarin’s reading of the rules of riddle engagement without incident.

These performances use the traditional Alfano ending, written after Puccini’s death left the final scene unfinished. The cast and orchestra built up effectively to the choral reprise of “Nessun dorma”, after Turandot finally accepts Calaf.

The production, seen in an impressive DVD made shortly after the debut (with Eva Marton in the title role and Berislav Klobučar conducting), has been refurbished with careful attention to detail, even to the point of using 1990s lighting technology. The current lighting designer, Gary Marden, wanted to achieve the colors and textures that Hockney and Thomas J. Munn, the original lightning designer, intended.

Hockney’s curvy geometric shapes look refreshed. Framing the story in a storybook stylization and simplification of the Chinoiserie (which can overtake more lavish productions) downplays the Chinese-ness of the story, originally the 18th-century Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi’s fantasy anyway. A 21st-century San Francisco audience could find some stock characterizations culturally uncomfortable. In a thoughtful program article, the playwright David Henry Hwang and author Amy Tan, both Chinese-Americans, wrote that it’s important not to denigrate (intentionally or unintentionally) an actual civilization. But, they agreed, it’s really all about the music, some of Puccini’s most complex and vivid.

This current cast has four more goes at it, and different talent (led by soprano Nina Stemme in the title role and conductor Christopher Franklin) bring the opera back for six more performances in November and December.

Harvey Steiman

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