Turandot: re-working lifts opera to new heights

January 20, 2019 by Victor Grynberg
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Giacomo Puccini is rightly acclaimed for so many brilliant operas, and for many of the arias and duets in his less successful works.

Mariana Hong as Liù and ensemble in Opera Australia’s 2019 production of Turandot at the Sydney Opera House.
Photo credit: Keith Saunders

Turandot certainly is one of the most beloved, but only about 90% of the opera was actually written by Puccini before his death in 1924.

A year and a half later, with the opera completed by Italian composer Franco Alfano, it was premiered under the baton of no less than the great Arturo Toscanini.

Last year OA thrilled and delighted audiences with their casting of the mighty Amber Wagner as the ice princess Turandot.

But instead of being complacent,  OA their re-worked last year’s production.

How was this done? The most notable was the extended dramatic role given to the chorus. And it paid off in spades, adding considerable drama to the night.

As usual, the chorus is always extremely well- rehearsed and in so many different scenes, albeit crowded on the too-small Joan Sutherland Theatre stage, they did not miss a beat.

It’s customary, but only in recent years for OA to allow the Chorus Master to come on stage at the end and receive their very richly deserved recognition. Anthony Hunt was rightly greeted with very warm applause when he emerged at the end of the performance. Full marks also for the singing and stage work of an excellent Sydney Children’s Choir. They added a lot to the night.

Amber Wagner’s Turandot does not appear before Act 11. But once she is on stage she dominates with her steely ice princess appearance and her powerful voice. A voice that reaches out completely in an effortless way, so much that you can’t imagine better singing.

Not to criticize earlier tenors but as the hero Calaf, Spanish tenor Andeka Gorrotxategi makes a very welcome return. His voice is nowhere near the power of Miss Wagner’s but he hits his notes sweetly and acts very well. Everybody waits for “Nessun  Dorma “ and though not sung Pavarotti style, he sang it with a honey-sweet voice and resisted the temptation to overplay the aria, just because of its world-wide popularity.

One of the reasons why Turandot was not performed in China till 1998, is that the three ministers Ping, Pang and Pong are portrayed as much as clowns as ministers. Performing these roles was a first-class trio of Christopher Hillier, Virgilio Marino and John Longmuir. Their energy and very good singing was an essential element in the success of the evening. And was well recognised by an extremely enthusiastic first-night audience.

In the normal way, most applause will always go to the leading soprano and tenor, but audiences seem very knowledgeable nowadays, so the rapturous reception given to Mariana Hong as Calaf’s devoted slave Liu, who gives her life to save his, was very much deserved. I can’t think of ever seeing a better all-round Liu than Miss Hong. You could sense how involved the audience was in her characterization as she sang her final aria, just before her suicide. A superb piece of Puccini.

This strong cast was well supported, notably by the excellent Richard Anderson as Calaf’s exiled father Timur.

I remember well the excitement in 1990 when acclaimed dancer and outstanding choreographer, Sydney’s world-class Graeme Murphy, first gave us this production. This was the period when the then The Australian Opera, started giving us drama as well as fine music in their productions.

This formula surely must be why today OA productions are so well patronised, and the wonderful feed back I receive from opera-experienced overseas visitors about each and every production they see in Sydney. That a production almost 30 years old is in no need of changing is a great tribute to Maestro Murphy.

Victor Grynberg

Of course, where there’s Graeme, there is always his wonderful and equally talented partner Kristian Fredrikson, the set and costume designer. Breathtaking and just perfect for the opera. The scene with the chorus in their white robes used so effectively is a great example of how much good costuming can add to a production.

Opera is all about music and once more playing in their newly enlarged pit the rich sound that emanated from the Opera Australia Orchestra was in perfect harmony and timing to the singers. Christian Badea, an OA veteran nowadays led the players with enthusiasm and timing that fully complemented the action on stage.

Pulling the strings was Lyndon Terracini, whose successes as Artistic Director increase and increase, and the Revival Director Kim Walker, whose ability to use movement on stage greatly adds to this excellent production.

Sydney Opera House

Joan Sutherland Theatre

January 15th 2019

5 stars

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