Last night in the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Opera (SFO) presented the first of six performances by the second cast for this season’s revival of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot. The new cast members were soprano Nina Stemme in the title role, making her first SFO appearance since the 2011 Ring cycle, soprano Leah Crocetto returning to the role of Liù, having made her debut in that role here in 2011, and bass Solomon Howard, making his SFO debut in the role of Timur. Tenor Brian Jagde is continuing in the role of Calaf, having made his debut in that role this past September. However, there was one more significant debut last night; and that was the presence of conductor Christopher Franklin in the orchestra pit:
Conductor Christopher Franklin (photograph by Donato Bellomo, courtesy of San Francisco Opera)
To his credit, Franklin’s approach to this opera was markedly different, meaning that those of us who pay as much attention to listening as to looking did not regret the absence of Music Director Nicola Luisotti. Those who attended a first-cast performance could not have failed to notice the intensity that Luisotti brought to his interpretation of Puccini’s score. Luisotti’s approach to dynamics was a matter of using loudness as an awe-inspiring force of nature (one way of describing Turandot herself), rather than just outbursts of noise.
Franklin, on the other hand, knew how to get the most out of the other end of the scale of dynamic levels. While he never stinted when unleashing the full force of the orchestra (always there to match the full force of the 79 members of the SFO Chorus), he always knew when to tone down the volume to direct the listener’s attention to the more nuanced aspects of both the narrative and its realization through performance. His range of expressiveness was thus wider than Luisotti’s and did much to draw attention to the undercurrents of humanity that serve as the compass that guides the direction of the plot line.
As a result, while the design is still David Hockey’s and the stage direction is still Garnett Bruce’s conception, the attentive viewer (as well as listener) was oriented by new points of view, particularly involving the motives behind the character of Calaf. There is a tendency of let go of the leash and allow the plot line to present Calaf as passionately impetuous. This interpretation can be realized with great satisfaction, as it was during the first-cast performances. However, the music tells us much about the exiled Timur and the crucial role of his anonymity. Once that context has been established, Calaf’s motives are no longer as simple as they seem on the surface, and the final act becomes an intense clash of wills that involves far more than a tragic death followed by a change in character seemingly brought on by one kiss.
Fortunately, these new subtleties in approaching the narrative came through in Bruce’s staging, consistently enhanced through Franklin’s shaping of the orchestra’s role in evoking the progress of the plot. The result was an enlightening perspective on a fantastic tale that was far more than “the second time around” in this season’s SFO offerings. The surface structure may not have differed very much from the first-cast performance. Below that surface, however, so much was happening that this new round of performances is likely to satisfy even those who still recall the vividness of what that first cast offered.