OPERA REVIEW: Turandot — A Wild, Multicultural Ride

Opera Philadelphia’s scores points with its highly entertaining, visually spectacular production

Christine Goerke in Opera Philadelphia's Turandot. (Kelly & Massa Photography)

Christine Goerke in Opera Philadelphia’s Turandot. (Kelly & Massa Photography)

Opera Philadelphia’s opening week is globe-trotting and time-traveling.  Breaking the Waves, their world-premiere production, takes place in a grim Scottish town in the 1970s. Verdi’s Macbeth resets the action to contemporary Africa.

In between is Turandot, Puccini’s beloved final opera, left unfinished at the time of his death in 1924. Turandot takes place in ancient Peking — make that ancient Peking, as adapted from an 18th century Italian play, influenced by 16th century commedia dell’arte, and set to music by an early 20th century composer (also Italian) with a 19th century sensibility.

So what should a staging of Turandot look like?  Compounding the problem is that today’s audiences are less inclined to accept chinoiserie as harmless kitsch.

I absolutely love director-choreographer Renaud Doucet’s visually spectacular, highly imaginative solution, a shared production

now onstage at the Academy of Music.  Doucet doesn’t run away from the kitsch — rather, he embraces it, along with unapologetic multiculturalism.  There’s some China here, seen through Western eyes; also some Kabuki, Balinese dance, and in the comic Ping-Pang-Pong scenes even a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan.  It’s a highly entertaining ride, but Doucet also knows how to touch an audience — the long, silent exit of the chorus following Liù’s death makes a profound impact.

This won’t be a Turandot that pleases everybody. Some will object to the amount of stylized movement (a lot), others to the broad tonal mix.  But for me, it works so well because Doucet is plugged into the fundamental commedia tone of Carlo Gozzi’s play.

It’s not uncommon for a Turandot to make its biggest impression through the scenery.  Before Franco Zefferelli’s production faded, it was regularly the case at the Met.  What’s rarer is for a conductor and orchestra to be the center of attention — but here, they are. Corrado Rovaris’s very fast tempi gave the first act especially a thrilling dramatic vitality.

The principals proved a more mixed bag.  When Christine Goerke (Turandot) began, her first notes had the amplitude and depth that signal a great singer, but her voice isn’t a perfect fit for the role — it narrows as she ascends, and while she makes all the notes without a problem, the lightning-bolt quality at the top isn’t there.  But she is an uncommonly sympathetic actress; fully warmed up in Act III, Goerke made far more of the final scene than most Turandots.

On the other hand, Marco Berti is a charisma-free Calaf, indeed unworthy of her.  There’s an exciting ring to his top notes, but Berti has precious little tonal allure, poetry, or stage presence.   Joyce El-Khoury (Liù) is an appealing figure, and she managed some lovely pianissimo high notes; but the vibrant tone wasn’t always perfectly tuned or bound into a good legato line.  After Goerke, the strongest vocal performance was Morris Robinson as a sonorous, touching Timur.

So vocally, not always the Turandot I dream of.  But the production and orchestral contributions are superb, and I enjoyed it thoroughly — perhaps more than ever before in live performance.

Turandot has performances through October 2.  For more information, visit Opera Philadelphia’s website.