Review: ‘Turandot’ at SF Opera (****1/2)

by Charles Kruger

Act II, Scene 1 of SF Opera’s production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” magnificently designed by David Hockney. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

It is often noted that many Grand Opera plots are silly. Even the tragedies. Many an appreciative opera fan cannot resist the occasional titter at operatic melodrama.

Puccini’s “Turandot” is one such giggle-inducing classic. Supposedly set in China in the city of Peking, it is hardly an accurate portrayal of that ancient metropolis. And the presence of three clownish diplomats with the absurd names of  Ping, Pang, and Pong doesn’t help set a serious tone.

But one of the joys of attending opera is to see great art triumph over stilted melodrama and over-the-top staging. Grand Opera, with its exotic elaborations, almost inhumanly athletic singing, and unlikely casting anomalies (a nice way to describe fat tenors or aging soubrettes) is an easy target for fun.  But when the sum of its parts successfully transforms the silly to the sublime, there is no greater theatrical thrill. When Grand Opera works, it is like watching a flock of wild turkeys flying like eagles, or a herd of elephants dancing en pointe. Opera lovers attend every performance in hopes of  a miracle, and sometimes we are rewarded.

That “sometime” was our time when we attended the current San Francisco Opera rendition of “Turandot,” which revives a beautiful production with a visual design by the great David Hockney.

Hockney plays with perspective and color in masterly fashion, and his evocations of Chinese landscape painting are erudite and beautiful. The staging is also a delight, telling the story with crystal clarity.

But Turandot, above all else, is about Puccini’s music. This production utilizes the largest orchestra that has ever performed for the SF Opera — more than 100 musicians! Music director Nicola Luisotti (who sadly is completing his final season in that role before departing for Europe) is at the top of his form. From beginning to end, he gives us this through-composed score in an amazingly seamless performance. It sounds and feels like a single piece of music — so much so, that there was not even a miniscule pause to applaud even the most magnificent arias until the resounding, foot-stomping, yelling ovation that followed the final curtain. Puccini, I think, would have cried for joy.

And now it is my privilege to speak of the singers. First among equals is the remarkable Toni Marie Palmertree, a second year Adler Fellow.  As Liú, Palmertree realizes the promise shown by outstanding performances in a variety of roles last season, emerging as a major diva. Those of us fortunate to see this production will be talking about the thrill for many years to come. I’d bet a top dollar season ticket that more than a few opera fans will claim in their dotage to have been in attendance, even if they were not. This is a performance that bears comparison with the very best.

As Timur, the hero’s father who cannot persuade his foolish son from pursuing the cold and hearty Princess Turandot, Raymond Aceto is superb. As his son, Calaf, the Prince of Persia, Brian Jagde is as excellent as we have learned to expect, both in his singing and his acting. He excels in his delivery of “Nessun Dorma,” possibly the most admired tenor aria in the entire classical repertoire. As the three comic mandarin diplomats, Ping, Pang and Pong are deliciously funny as played by Joo WanKang, Julius Ahn, and Joel Sorenson. And then they stun in their delivery of the moving trio in Act II, when they sing of their longing to retire from the court of the cruel princess. As Turandot, Martina Serafin gives a subtle and convincing performance.

All told, this production is about as good as it gets.

Nevertheless, one cannot help feeling that the story lacks something. Doesn’t Calaf wind up with the wrong girl? Shouldn’t he have been happy with the loving Liú? Yes, Turandot in the end appears to have a change of heart, but is this murderous, cold hearted princess really redeemable?

Not in the view of Theatrestorm caricaturist, Argyle C. Klopnick. To wit:

“Turandot” will play at the War Memorial Opera House through December 9th. Note there are significant cast changes in November/December, when the roles of Turandot and Liù will be taken over by Nina Stemme and Leah Crocetto, respectively. For further information, click here.

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Rating:  ****1/2  (For an explanation of Theatrestorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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“Turandot” by Giacomo Puccini (last duet and finale by Franco Alfano). Libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni. Based on Friedrich Schiller’s version of a play by Carlo Gozzi. Co-Producers: SF Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti. Production and Design: David Hockney. Director: Garnett Bruce. Costume Designer: Ian Falconer. Original Lighting Designer: Thomas J. Munn. Lighting Designer: Gary Marder. Chorus Director: Ian Robertson. Choreography/Dance Master: Lawrence Pech. Fight Director: Dave Maier. 

Cast:

A Mandarin: Brad Walker. Liù: Toni Marie Palmertree. Timur: Raymond Aceto. Calaf: Brian Jagde. The Prince of Persia: Stephen Cannon. Ping: Joo Won Kang. Pang: Julius Ahn. Pong: Joel Sorenson. Handmaidens: Kathleen Bayler. Virginia Pluth. Emperor Altoum: Robert Brubaker. Princess Turandot: Martina Serafin.

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