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Turandot, Puccini’slast opera, is back at the Canadian Opera Company after an absence of fifteenyears. The singing is outstanding, the orchestra superb and the new productiondirected by Robert Wilson is original, idiosyncratic, experimental and quite astounding.

Turandot is set inmythical China and is the story about a beautiful but unpleasant PrincessTurandot who is in the habit of decapitating men who cannot solve threeriddles. An unknown prince shows up at the palace in Beijing and falls in lovewith Turandot at first sight and so badly thathe is prepared to risk his life in order to get her. His father, a blind,deposed king, is travelling with a slave girl and meets up at the palace withhis son who happens to be the unknown prince.

The exotic setting and the myth provide huge latitude for directors toexercise their imagination about how to present the opera. And indeed they havefrom Franco Zeffirelli’s over-the-top lush rendering to commedia dell’arte renderingswith much in between.

Robert Wilson’s approach is to present a static, almost monochromaticproduction where the characters do not interact. Prince Calaf (tenor SergeySkorokhodov), you will recall, falls in love with Turandot after a cursorylook. In fact, Calaf, appearing in gray fromhead to toe, spends most of his time on stage looking in front of him, chin up,with no eye contact with anyone.

This holds true for most of the characters.

The libretto calls for Calaf to run up to his father King Timur (DavidLeigh) happy and relieved that he has finally found him. In this production,Calaf, Timur and the slave girl Liu (Joyce El-Khoury) stand like statuesthroughout and again do not establish any contact or interaction. This holdstrue for everyone except for Ping (Adrian Timpau), Pang (Julian Ahn) and Pong (JosephHu) who bop up and down continuously like comic characters from a silent movie.By the way, they are called Jim, Bob and Bill. They deserve praise for finevocal and physical performances.

Puccini’s music, the chorus and the singers provide the opera withmotion and thrust that transport the audience into extraordinary heights ofenjoyment. The details of the plot do not bear too much analysis from Calaf’streatment of Liu, to Turandot’s attitude to people, to her “melting” in thethroes of love. All can stretch credulity beyond its limits.

Wilson I suggest treats the plot as a series of rituals that are carriedby the music and singing and may not need or bear any attempt at realism. Welisten to the incredibly wonderful choruses, the arias etc. and they carry usalong without the necessity of looking any further. Liu is tortured and killsherself but there is nothing on stage to illustrate it. There is a change inlighting over Liu and she is “dead” even if she is still standing.

Wilson designed the production including the lighting concepts. TheChorus with their black armor and helmets look like defectors from Star Wars.The stage has no props and lighting is used judiciously and effectively.Realism is eschewed at every turn. Turandot goes across the stage and back butshe seems to float along the floor. Timur with his long white beard and hairalmost never moves.

The singing is excellent. Skorokhodov sings standing in one place withno movement at all except during “Nessun dorma” when he uses his hands alittle. His declaration of love is ritualistic and thrilling in their own termswithout romantic outpourings which in the context of the opera may beunconvincing.

Soprano Tamara Wilson is indeed the icy princess but she excels vocally.She is frosty while El-Khoury’s Liu is sympathetic and vocally splendid. Shecan hardly be anything else but again her outpouring of emotion is restrainedto the parameters of Wilson’s view of the opera.

Conductor Carlo Rizziand the COC Orchestra and Chorus deserve extra commendation for theiroutstanding performance in keeping us enthralled perhaps because of or maybedespite Wilson’s approach. A thrilling night at the opera.


Turandot by Giacomo Puccini (completed by Franco Alfano)with libretto by GiuseppeAdami and Renato Simoni is being performed nine times in repertory between September

26 and October 27, 2019 atthe Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671.

October 19, 2019

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