Last night in the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Opera (SFO) presented the second performance of its season-opening production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot. As was previously announced, this production will be double-cast, with the second cast giving its performances at the conclusion of the fall season. Once again, the striking designs of David Hockney, which he created for SFO in 1993, provided just the right setting for the intense staging by Garnett Bruce and the impassioned conducting of Music Director Nicola Luisotti.
For all of its popularity, Turandot goes against just about all the grain-lines that set expectations. If it is to be called a love story at all, it could well be the most enigmatic one in the opera literature, the strongest competition being Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten (the woman without a shadow), which predates Turandot by about half a decade. One might almost call Turandot pure spectacle (which Frau ohne Schatten decidedly is not), rather than a love story; and it is definitely a far cry from the commedia dell’arte play by Carlo Gozzi that inspired Friedrich Schiller to write his play Turandot, Prinzessin von China, which is usually taken as the source for the libretto that Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni prepared for Puccini. Ultimately, one has to fall back on that time-worn (if not forgotten) cliché: “It is what it is.”
Last night’s performance, however, definitely tipped the scales in favor of pure spectacle. If nothing else, this may have been the most unabashedly loud performance I have experienced in the War Memorial Opera House for some time (including past performances of Turandot). This is a bit ironic, since the size of the orchestra for Richard Strauss’ “Elektra,” the other SFO offering at the present time, is 95, while there are only 73 musicians in the orchestra pit for Turandot. Nevertheless, Puccini pulled out as many stops as he could find for the first act of his final opera. Luisotti responded by playing the opening gesture with a loudness of ten and still managed to build up to eleven by the end of the act.
Note, however, the use of the adjective “loud,” rather than “noisy.” Under Luisotti’s interpretation, Turandot was no mere tantrum with lots of special effects. One can only describe it as a force of nature, and Luisotti was there to make sure that all of us on audience side experienced all of the impact of that force.
Needless to say, this poses a major challenge to the vocalists on stage. They have to sing accurately, clearly, and expressively through the orchestra’s wall of sound; and, with only a few exceptions, there are few opportunities to regather strength other than during the intermissions. (Ironically, the one extended period that does not demand full-time full strength was not composed by Puccini. It is the duet that Franco Alfano composed, after Puccini’s death, for Timur and Turandot before the final scene of the last act.) For the most part the vocalists rose to these physical challenges in Puccini’s score admirably.
Brian Jagde’s Timur definitely captured the right blend of precision, clarity, and expression. If that made him a bit melodramatic, one could not really expect otherwise from the libretto. Martina Serafin offered up what may well have been the most chilling personification of Turandot I have yet experienced:
photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera
Like Jagde, she had a voice that could cut through the densest instrumental textures like butter, and her expressiveness well served the complications of Turandot’s character. Adler Fellow Toni Marie Palmertree had two major arias for Liù (in the first and third acts, respectively). The second of those provides the turning point for the entire narrative, and her account was riveting. Finally, in the extended writing for Ping, Pang, and Pong (the only vestiges of commedia dell’arte in the libretto), Joo Won Kang was most solid as Ping; but, for the most part, Julius Ahn (Pang) and Joel Sorensen (Pong) kept up with him, no mean feat considering the hyperactivity of the staging for them.
Four performances remain for this “first round” of Turandot; and any one of them should be taken as a must-see for opera lovers this month.