Turandot at the National Arts Centre:a Brilliant Staging Helped erase the Weak Stage presence of Calaf (Richard Margison).

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht

turandot ppp

Puccini’s opera about the cruel Chinese princess, who beheads her suitors to avenge herself on men for killing an ancestor, is based on Carlo Gozzi’s play Turandotte (1762) but actually the legend of Turandot has nothing to do with China. It was originally Persian. The composer died before the opera was  first produced in 1926 , leaving unfinished fragments of music and libretti that had to be rewritten and reworked, (with the collaboration of the original conductor Toscanini) to capture the spirit of what  the Maestro might have created himself if he had lived.  Just to show that the genesis of this work is worthy of a Puccini opera itself.  

The production by Opera Lyra currently  playing in Southam Hall at the National Arts Centre is a sumptuous and magnificent spectacle, where  the unidentified prince, known  as Calaf, longs to possess the divine beauty of the the  frigid princess whose  repressed sexuality (“No man will ever possess me!”)  explodes into murderous acts of blood and  torture  as the excited crowds  flow about her feet singing the emperor’s praises and waiting for the executioner’s axe to fall on the next unlucky suitor, proudly exhibited here as an almost Christ like Persian prince, a sacrificial victim in a white robe. In fact the whole  axe grinding  ritual in Act I with the  appearance of the tattooed and muscle bound executioner became a heightened  stage moment of  pain and pleasure   that  director Brian Deedrick seemed to relish immensely, as it signalled the beginning of a superb piece of stage  design that brought much of the  strength to this production.

There is no doubt however, that Puccini’s music, with this heightened theatrical reading by conductor Andreas Delfs, is the big star. All the drama is there:  the foreboding rumblings of military power and impending tragedy in the percussions, the haunting moments of horn and oboe solos, the emotional roaring of the chorus (Laurence Ewashko’s excellent orchestration of these collective voices has transformed them into one resounding presence ); the  military strains intertwined with Chinese music of all kinds and then the romantic arias that sometimes echo the pathetic sufferings of some of  Puccini’s other self sacrificing heroines  such as Madame Butterfly. In this case the doomed woman is Liu the slave girl, ready give  her life for a man she loves but who rejects her, sung by Shu-ying Li. 

Crying out her despair, in beautiful soprano tones of course, under the torture of Turandot’s imperial guard, Liu refuses to reveal Calaf’s real name, so that Calaf will win his bet and be able to claim Turandot as his own. Soprano Shu-ying was the strongest stage presence  of the evening. Both a beautiful singer and a powerful actress, she mesmerized the audience with her capacity to fill that space with the symbiosis of delicate and violent emotion. A stunning performance by an exceptional singer who seems to incarnate all the psychological and musical turbulence of Puccini’s melodramatic heroines.

Turandot, sung by soprano Lori Phillips was also extremely moving. She transformed her frigid cruelty into pathetic cries of help to the emperor, begging him not to give her to this man Calaf, a repulsive creature whom she has sworn to hate but who is already awakening her first passionate impulses that she tries so hard to resist. Phillips captured all the nuances of complex emotions which appear so modern. She even dominates her scenes with tenor Richard Margison (Calaf) mainly because Margison appears to be totally lacking in stage presence. A big disappointment to be sure.

This fine tenor voice seemed to lack energy and when the singer was too far up stage or not facing the audience it was very difficult to hear him.  A rather weak stage presence and a voice that lacked passion, in spite of his character’s great desire for this cruel woman, was made all the more ambiguous by the contrast in the scenes where he was  confronted with the powerful voice of Lori Phillips’ Turandot. In fact the frigid Turandot battling against her repressed sexuality and first awakenings of desire became the most passionate presence on the stage, whereas Marginson’s Calaf almost melted away into cool indifference.

However, we almost forget this as we are caught up in Brian Deedrick’s brilliant staging and the collective efforts of his team. Working around the minimalist sets from the Carolina Opera Company, the stage director made excellent use of the wooden scaffolding to project the god like Emperor into the heavens in his shining gold attire, surrounded by the wailing crowds grovelling around his feet in their grey robes, like living dirt. Of course all this visual splendour was brought to life in a most extraordinary way by Michael Baumgarten’s most artistically sensitive lighting design, which at times was dazzlingly modern, and at other times, almost spiritually Wagnerian, especially the streams of moonlight filling the misty night as Calaf sings the famous aria Nessun dorma in Act III.  

The only weakness of the staging appeared to be  the trio of Ministers, Ping Pang Pong who in their flamboyantly mechanized suites and painted faces, reminded  us of the style and even the masks of the Peking Opera. Partly comic relief, their gestures at times lack precision and their voices got lost in the crowd, especially in the final act.

Nevertheless. This is one of the most aesthetically pleasing and even exciting productions that Opera Lyra has ever produced and it augurs well for the new opera season in Ottawa.

A modified version of the review first appeared on www.scenechanges.com