Second Time Around, Turandot Even Better in San Francisco

United StatesUnited States Puccini, Turandot: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of San Francisco Opera / Christopher Franklin (conductor), War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 28.11.2017. (HS)

Nina Stemme as Princess Turandot and Brian Jagde as Calaf in Puccini's 'Turandot' (Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)
Nina Stemme (Turandot) & Brian (Calaf)
(c) Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Turandot — Nina Stemme
Calaf — Brian Jagde
Liù — Leah Crocetto
Timur — Solomon Howard
Ping — Joo Won Kang
Pang — Julius Ahn
A Mandarin — Brad Walker
Emperor Altoum — Robert Brubaker

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

Nina Stemme in the title role was the most visible change in San Francisco Opera’s 2017 restoration of David Hockney’s colorful, eye-popping production of Turandot. Much of the cast remained in this month’s reprise from September’s season-opening performances of the Puccini favorite, and if anything, Tuesday found them all much more comfortable in their roles—much more of a well-oiled team.

There was nothing wrong with the September group, led with vigorous conducting by Nicola Luisotti in his final assignment as the company’s music director after 10 years on the podium here. Martina Serafin was an icy princess of robust tone who could make one believe something was simmering below the strident surface. But then, it took until the third act for everything to jell onstage. No problems this time.

Conductor Christopher Franklin, a regular in European opera houses and conductor of several operas for the Naxos label, gave the score a more traditional, more spacious reading, as opposed to Luisotti’s inexorable propulsiveness. This paid dividends right from the start. This time Act I flowed and the characters established themselves more clearly.

Tenor Brian Jagde’s Calaf made a ringing impression, vocally on point. His is a heroic tenor voice, with real squillo, enhanced by a virile stage presence. In September, his positive impact didn’t arrive until his Act III ‘Nessun dorma’, but this time, he established his bona fides from the start. In their Act II scene, the Ping/Pang/Pong trio have honed their clowning selves with more distinct characteristics, better timing, and a more serious demeanor, letting their individual personalities blossom. Franklin gave them enough musical space to highlight more humanity. Baritone Joo Won Kang (Ping) and tenors Julius Ahn (Pang) and Joel Sorensen (Pong) sang better, too. Tenor Robert Brubaker’s Emperor Altoum and baritone Brad Walker’s Mandarin were as good as they were in September.

But the revelation was Stemme. Best known for her Wagner roles, the Swedish soprano has distinguished herself with sensational Brunnhildes in the Ring here (and a memorable Senta in Der fliegende Holländer). Though she seemed to be husbanding her voice carefully in her opening aria, “In questa reggia,” she got it together for a big climax, and was vocally confident for the rest of the evening. She delivered a creamy, pure sound even when she had to ride over a full orchestra, and in the final scene conveyed a believable vulnerability, all the while matching Jagde’s big sound decibel for decibel.

Leah Crocetto, a local favorite since her days as an Adler Fellow in the company’s development program, applied supple soprano tone to Liù’s lyric music (replacing the first cast’s Toni Marie Palmertree), floating some gorgeous high notes and making her the most appealing human among so many selfish characters. Bass Solomon Howard sang Timur (the other sympathetic human) with impressive resonance and more focus to the text than his uninflected acting conveyed.

On balance, this time around Turandot emerged with more emotional impact and overall better musical values. And it never gets dull watching Puccini’s opera play against Hockney’s extraordinary sets. Thumbs up on the reboot.

Harvey Steiman

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