Much as I would enjoy seeing the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot – it’s on until April 24 – work keeps me on this side of the Ditch this week. I’m consoled by the fact that I have seen Puccini’s last great opera twice in Sydney, and here is a review to share with you.
What’s this about opera in a food and travel newsletter, I hear you say? I’m really not being too much off-topic as my Alimentary website coverage also includes “the good things in life”; for me, Italian opera is one of the most beautiful things in the world.
A change or two has occurred since this review appeared on theoperacritic.com website: Australian celebrity chef Guillaume Brahimi has moved from the Bennelong Restaurant at the Sydney Opera House to Bistro Guillaume in Paddington, NSW. I’m sure though that the Yarrabank Cuvée Guillaume I enjoyed before Turandot still tastes just as good.
Fire and ice – and greasepaint
Sydney Opera House
16 March, 2012
By John Corbett Of all the opera houses in the world, Jørn Utzon’s splendid creation on Sydney Harbour is surely the most iconic. The swooping, elegant, sail-like shapes of its concert chambers (now a UNESCO World Heritage site) are the perfect complement to a spectacular natural setting where, during the intervals in performances, you can enjoy ravishing night-time city- and waterscapes that are often complemented by a big Australian moon.
For an even more serene pre-performance experience, contemplate the view from the Opera House’s chic Bennelong Bar while sipping a flute or two of 2007 Yarrabank Cuvée Guillaume, named for the distinguished French-Australian celebrity chef (and proprietor of the Bennelong Restaurant), Guillaume Brahimi.
It can take quite a bit of opera to match such surroundings, but on a recent evening a production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, directed by the Australian designer and choreographer Graeme Murphy, with Kristian Frederickson, proved largely up to the task. It wasn’t its first outing by any means – the reviewer saw the same opera, by the same duo, in the same house some 18 years ago – but in the intervening time the stage values, and very likely the budget, have improved immeasurably.
This staging of Turandot sets a further stamp, as if any were needed, on Murphy’s stature as one of Australia’s premier opera designer/directors. From the outset, when giant golden fans part in a vaguely Mandarin Oriental Hotels logo-type way to reveal the set, it’s a gorgeously costumed and lavishly decorated visual feast. Scarcely no Oriental trope, from jam-packed, banner-waving street scenes and processions, to opium den-style murkiness, to the gilded opulence of the court of the emperor Altoum, seems to have gone unreferenced. No mention of visual treats can also fail to omit the strapping muscle boys in the Executioner’s retinue who paraded around in Spartacus-style next-to-nothings.
All of the eye-poppingness however serves a good purpose. Murphy’s cinematic-style choreography helps to keep the production moving along at a good clip and a sensitive attention to visual moods effectively evokes the dark, dystopian world created by Turandot’s icy and murderous will. The visual treatment of the opera also gives the arch-bureaucrats Ping, Pong and Pang (sung excellently by Andrew Moran, David Corcoran and Graeme MacFarlane) the sinister weight they deserve. Too many productions play this trio for broad comedy, but here, as they note in one of the arrestingly beautiful pieces of stage business that Murphy has created for them in Act II, they are truly “Ministers of Death”.
Occasionally though, all the visual gorgeousness tips over into excess. Murphy’s swirling choreography in particular becomes wearing at times, and worrisome: like the people next to me I fretted about cast members running perilously close to the lip of the orchestra pit during some of the crowd scenes, and later about the heavily begowned Princess Turandot standing with her toes poised on the edge for several long minutes. Other minor distractions included the Executioner’s big round axe repeatedly catching an ill-placed spotlight and a hellish glare from upstage at the end of Act I, when Calaf announces his suitorship of Turandot, that half-blinded the audience.
The principal performances also had uncertain moments. As Princess Turandot, Anke Höppner gave a tentative (and probably insufficiently warmed-up) rendering of In questa reggia in Act II. Like all below-par performances of this admittedly daunting aria, it cast a pall over the rest of the evening. By the next scene, when she posed her riddles to Calaf, her solid talent as a dramatic singer was well in evidence, as was her ability in her later arias to really project her voice. It’s a real pity though about In questa reggia.*
As Liù, the Korean soprano Hyeseoung Kwon fared better overall with a competent and vocally accurate performance of several arias that are capable of stealing the show, but on this occasion didn’t. Her acting was proficient but her voice was noticeably less powerful than those of the two other principals and on one or two occasions the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, under the baton of Aubrey Murphy, drowned her out. The New Zealand baritone Jud Arthur also gave a good performance as Timur, the exiled king of Tartary; never mind that his beard and robes channelled Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.
If there was a suitor for the role of star of the show, it was the Australian tenor Carlo Barricelli, whose fine Italianate voice can fill a theatre beautifully when needed. His thrilling Nessun Dorma in Act III produced shivers down the back and a storm of bravos and clapping from the audience, although he also had his wobbles. When called upon at other times to sing in full voice from silence, he twice wandered uncertainly onto the note.
Just as the riddles of Turandot may be three but the answer is one, the star of this production was the production itself. Meticulously conceived although overenthusiastically brought to life at times, it even carried the work lightly through the several rocky minutes of the ending added by the composer Franco Alfano after Puccini’s untimely death in 1924; when the fire of Calaf’s kiss quenched Turandot’s icy resolve, the audience tittered only mildly in disbelief. What, then, does an occasional whiff of greasepaint matter when such a transformation occurs? And especially when you emerge afterwards, full of Puccini’s ineffable melodies, into the matching splendour of a warm Australian night.
This review first appeared on theoperacritic.com website.
* PS: Here’s how to do In questa reggia properly:
Photos: Opera Australia, Branco Gaica