Monday, September 25, 2017

Puccini’s Percussion in Abundance

During my first encounter with this season’s production by San Francisco Opera of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, I was seated on Orchestra level with the percussion section directly in front of me at a distance of about ten rows. This may be one reason why I described the performance as “unabashedly loud” without taking it to task for being unduly noisy. The fact is that, at that close proximity, I could appreciate how much diversity could be found Puccini’s percussion instrumentation and how imaginatively he used that diversity.

Yesterday afternoon I returned to my higher vantage point from which I could observe the percussionists themselves, rather than just listening to their instruments. The activity may not have been quite as vivid as the staging conceived by Garnett Bruce; but, for those as interested in the instrumental side of the score as in the vocal work, the musicians definitely put on a show that came close. Aside from the timpanist, who is responsible only for his four drums, there were six percussionists involved in an almost free-flowing ballet to account for a wide diversity of instruments.

On the pitched side these included a glockenspiel, a xylophone, a marimba, chimes, and, most importantly, eleven Chinese gongs, each with a different (and highly distinctive) pitch. These had to blend with triangle, funeral drum, cymbals, tam-tam, and what sounded like two distinct snare drums with different pitches. In addition there were both a woodblock and a gong played backstage, along with the onstage gong that Calaf strikes at the end of the first act. As far as I could tell, tenor Brian Jagde did this himself without any help from anyone backstage or in the pit!

All of these instruments contributed to establishing a rhetorical stance that rarely relaxed from the intensely visceral. Additional coloration was provided by two harps and a celeste in the pit and an offstage organ for the end of the second act. One did not so much hear the low pedal pitches of that organ as be aware that one’s whole body was vibrating sympathetically with it.

In this context it is important to make special note of the conducting technique of Music Director Nicola Luisotti. He clearly appreciated that every sonorous gesture from a percussionist provided its own contribution to the libretto’s narrative. Those contributions were just as critical as the parts played by the strings, winds, and brass. Then, of course, Luisotti had to make sure that all of that “instrumental action” blended in just the right quantities with the intensity of the demands on all the solo vocalists and the heavily-populated chorus prepared by Ian Robertson.

The skillful ability to manage so wide a variety of musical and dramatic resources has much to do with why the SFO Turandot has established itself as one of the most consistently compelling productions in the repertoire. In my last account I focused my attention on how all of those solo vocalists served the narrative demands of the libretto so well. This time I came away with an even deeper appreciation of the extent to which satisfying those demands requires critically well-informed leadership from both Luisotti and Robertson. It is hard to think of a better case being made for SFO being such a valuable asset to the San Francisco cultural scene. Since only one performance of the current run of this production remains (on Saturday, September 30), those who have not yet experienced this case being made would do well to clear the weekend calendar for the last chance. (Readers may recall that there will be a second run of six performances that will begin on Saturday, November 18. These will involve new singers for the roles of Turandot, Liù, and Timur, as well as a change in conductor.)

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