Turandot is conversation-sparking opera, on stage in Toronto
With the blackface scandal fresh in everyone’s mind, it is a complex time for Canadian Opera Company to mount Turandot, Giacomo Puccini’s final, and most musically complex opera. Turandot’s story resets the bar for the complexities of the cultural appropriation discussion: it is an ancient Persian fairy tale, set in even more ancient China, which made the rounds through Europe in a variety of incarnations in the 18th and 19th centuries before becoming the basis for an Italian opera in the early 20th century. Since its premiere in 1926, one year after Puccini’s death, the performance tradition has relied upon the most hackneyed tropes of orientalism (think dragons and gongs) to tell a fantastical tale occurring in a make-believe “China.”
Princess Turandot is justifiably wary of marriage. To avoid patriarchy’s snare, she has set her suitors a trial of answering three riddles to win her hand. If they get even one wrong answer, they are executed. Her courtiers have watched many men die. An exiled prince arrives to the freshly-plated head of the Prince of Persia, and decides he’ll succeed where everyone else has failed. Numerous people, including his long-lost father Timur, Timur’s devoted support worker Liu, and three civil servants, try to convince the Prince this is a bad idea, but he is not deterred. Comedy and tragedy ensues.
While clearly not based on any actual historical events, productions of Turandot have traditionally been used to a further a racist narrative that “Oriental” cultures are barbaric. Director Robert Wilson, in his COC debut, is clearly well aware of the 21st century problems with Turandot. A number of steps are taken to reduce the anti-Asian racism that has been traditional for this work.
The three ministers, who function as operatic commedia dell’arte clowns, are called Jim, Bob and Bill instead of Ping, Pang and Pong. All three performers are Asian, but their makeup, body language and gestures are drawn from the European clowning tradition. The costumes (Jacques Reynaud) definitely draw on designs we associate with Imperial China, but stop far short of arriving at a The King and I place. Angled lines and monochrome predominates, with contrasting red for Turandot, and the overall effect is tailored precision.
This exacting, angled imagery is continued in the set design (Stephanie Engeln). During the first two acts, the stage is empty save for the performers, with projection as backdrop. The second act’s projected bramble backdrop becomes corporeal in the third and final act, requiring performers to interact with set pieces for the first time in this production.
I am of two minds about Wilson’s aesthetic for this work. The intellectual motivation for the directorial choices reads very clearly and the stark, high-contrast set and costume design are an excellent canvass for Puccini’s grandiose music. On the other hand, I have an aesthetic bias against minimalism in Puccini. It is just not what I’m looking for when I see grand opera. While there are certainly very surreal moments in the production, I would have appreciated more visual immersion in the fantastical realm.
Musically and dramatically, Turandot is 150% on point. Puccini’s final opera is definitely his most harmonically advanced. With the exception of the famous Nessun Dorma, sung beautifully by tenor Sergey Skorokhodov in the role of Prince Calaf, the score does not rely as heavily on melodic, Italian-folky passages as his other operas. Singers and orchestra (Carlo Rizzi, Conductor) are ever on their toes as they navigate highly chromatic passages that retain the fluidity and suppleness that is so inherent to Puccini’s understanding of the musical phrase. Tamara Wilson, who wowed COC audiences last spring as Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello, delivers another compelling and mighty performance as Turandot. Whereas her richly textured soprano is all dulcet vulnerability as Desdemona, she is pure fire and ice in this role. Wilson clearly has the dramatic talent to match her immense voice and brings the full weight of both to bear in this role.
Joyce El-Khoury is magnificent in the role of long-suffering servant Liu, whose unrequited love for Prince Calaf motivates her sacrifice. Also a full-lyric soprano, her character and voice are almost a mirror image of Turandot. While Turandot refuses to let those wishing to love her in, Liu sacrifices everything for one who does not love her back. This contrast is ably reflected in El-Khoury’s vocal interpretation of the role. While her instrument is also sizeable, she brings much less force and edge to her more gentle music, while maintaining a strong core to the sound throughout, clearly communicating this characters quiet courage.
Adrian Timpau, Julius Ahn, and Joseph Hu do a phenomenal job of blending operatic singing and physical comedy buffoonery as Jim, Bob and Bill. I am still not sure how they manage all of that lithe leaping while maintaining excellent breath support, but they do.
While hilarious, Jim, Bob and Bill were still somewhat uncomfortable to watch. I think this is because, quite ironically, the musical sophistication of Turandot is inextricably entwined with its orientalism. Puccini uses his fairly unsophisticated 19th century Italian understanding of pentatonic modes used in Chinese music as a springboard for harmonic innovation that far surpasses his earlier works. And yet there are passages that remind the listener of the hook from “Kung Fu Fighting.” The orientalism embedded in the musical semiotics is never more evident than in Jim, Bob and Bill’s music.
Ultimately, it is not possible to mount a production of Turandot that is completely free from orientalism. Robert Wilson and the creative team of this production have demonstrated that it is possible to create a production that is critically aware of the orientalism, and is sincerely working to interpret this spectacular piece for 21st century audiences. See Turandot, and have a real conversation about the work, its interpretation, and current events.
- Turandot is playing until October 27, 2019 at Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen Street West)
- Show times are 7:30 PM on October 4, 9, 15, 17, 23 & 25 with additional matinees at 4:30 PM on October 19, and 2 PM on October 27.
- Ticket prices range from $45 – $365. Patrons under 30 can purchase tickets for $22 or $35 here.
- Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416-363-8231 (long distance 1-800-250-4653).
- Tickets can also be purchased on the TodayTix app and website for theatre tickets.
Photo of Joseph Hu, Sergey Skorokhodov, Julius Ahn, and Adrian Timpau by Michael Cooper