So many over-the-top elements come together in Puccini’s lush swan song, Turandot, that it can be easy to forget that this operatic fairy tale has something genuine to say about the nature of love and sacrifice. Andrei Serban’s now-classic 25-year-old staging of the work succeeds better than any I’ve seen at conveying that message. Designed for and often revived at London’s Royal Opera House (although first seen at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics), the production keeps the kitsch-ier elements of Turandot from interfering with its personal side.
I was taken with it when I first saw it a few years ago in London, and I found it just as effective and affecting Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, where it was unveiled as the season-closing presentation by Washington National Opera. (A concert version of the piece – no sets or costumes -- will be given at Baltimore’s Lyric Opera House June 2.)
Serban repeatedly ...
toys with an audience’s expectations for this opera. For one thing, his concept underplays the more typical extravaganza associated with this work. There’s no really grand entrance for Turandot, the imperious Chinese princess who forces suitors to solve three riddles before getting to first base, on pain of decapitation. Here, brought more down to earth, as it were, she can’t maintain too much distance between herself and a mysterious stranger, who, unconcerned about his own head, decides to try his luck at gaining her heart.
The director frames the action as a kind of opera-within-an-opera. Placed in the balconies of a set that suggests an old theater, masked, dark-clothed choristers gaze down on the vividly costumed characters acting out the drama, along with several balletic figures artfully woven into the action by choreographer Kate Flatt.
Even without Franco Zeffirelli-style dazzle, Serban’s vision for the opera, realized by set/costume designer Sally Jacobs and evocatively lit by F. Mitchell Dana, still offers plenty to engage the eye -- huge sculptural heads of Turandot’s victims, trailing long red streamers; a charming scroll depicting the Chinese countryside, gently unfurled as the court ministers wax nostalgic over the peaceful life denied them as they toil in service to the cruel Turandot; the soft light of paper lanterns in the mist at the start of the last act.
The director’s most unconventional touch is a deliberate intrusion into the supposed happily-ever-after finale. As the transformed Turandot and the riddle-busting prince Calaf sing of love’s conquering power, with chorus and orchestra awash in a glorious blaze of consonance, the last victim of her cruelty suddenly, disconcertingly enters the picture. It’s the slave girl Liu, who, only a short while earlier, had sacrificed her life rather than betray Calaf. Her corpse is pulled across the stage on a funeral carriage by the prince's blind and now guide-less father, Timur.
Heavy-handed, to be sure, but it sure is a distinctive way to drive home the tragic underpinning of this exotic once-upon-a-timer.
Helping to make the loss of Liu all the more telling on Saturday was the gorgeous singing of Sabina Cvilak in that role. Whatever she lacked in depth of acting, the soprano more than made up for in tonal radiance. Her floated pianissimo notes were alone worth the price of admission.
Puccini always felt extra sympathy for the female characters who expired in his operas, and he created some of his most exquisite music for Liu. Cvilak unleashed that beauty in phrase after melting phrase. No wonder it was her solo bow during the curtain calls that brought the audience to its feet.
It’s not unusual for a glowing Liu to dominate a performance of Turandot, since she's easily the most sympathetic protagonist. But the title role presents its own opportunities for a singer who can manage to convey the ice-box personality of the princess, while generating nuclear-plant lung power and revealing a hint of vulnerability. Maria Guleghina is very much up to that challenge.
The soprano summoned great waves of volume on Saturday — her first notes, even at less than full-throttle, seemed to shake the house — but she offered considerable tonal nuance as well. This was not the stand-and-scream type of Turandot all too frequently encountered. There was always something musical in Guleghina’s delivery, and enough warmth to offset the steel.
She didn’t always look comfortable executing the stylized body language that is part of the production, but she got across all the fear and loathing that consumes the princess. The way Guleghina pulled back her hand as Calaf tried to kiss it after his success with the riddles, for example, said a lot. In the last scene, the soprano also was able to bring out Turandot's softer side persuasively.
The weak link among the three central figures of the opera was Darío Volonté as Calaf. He got the job done, but the beefy tenor did not produce a meaty enough tone. Although top notes rang out decently, the rest sounded constricted and colorless. Not much of an actor, either, alas.
As Timur, the bass Morris Robinson was the only other singer who could compete with Guleghina’s ability to set off a Richter scale. His tone had a lot of richness, too, as did his phrasing. Among the court ministers, Nathan Herfindahl (Ping), was especially compelling for his burnished vocalism, but his colleagues — Norman Shankle (Pang), Yingxi Zhang (Pong) — certainly made admirable contributions as well.
Robert Baker sounded appropriately slender-voiced and sensitive as the old Emperor, whose descent from the sky is achieved quite elegantly in this staging. Oleksandr Pushniak could have used more tonal heft as the Mandarin. The chorus did mostly exemplary work, as did the orchestra.
Here and there, a more individualistic touch would have been welcome from conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, but she led an assured account of the score, saw to it that climactic moments had considerable sonic impact, and kept pit and stage generally in sync. (Placido Domingo will conduct the Baltimore concert and the final staged performance in Washington .)
PHOTOS BY KARIN COOPER COURTESY OF WASHINGTON NATIONAL OPERA