Stage Door Review
Thursday, October 10, 2019
by Giacomo Puccini, directed by Robert Wilson
Canadian Opera Company, Four Seasons Centre, Toronto
September 28, October 4, 9, 15, 17, 19, 23, 25 & 27, 2019
Liù: “Tu, che di gel sei cinta,
da tanta fiamma vinta
l’amerai anche tu!”
The Canadian Opera Company hasn’t presented Puccini’s final opera Turandot since 2004. Directed by Robert Wilson, the present production is completely unlike the 2004 production yet completely true to Wilson signature stylized approach as seen in Wilson’s direction of Einstein on the Beach (1976) staged here in 2012. In general Wilson non-naturalistic method suits Turandot quite well since the fairy-tale-like story is itself imbued with so much ritual. Yet, Puccini’s opera is also about a nation breaking free from restriction and Wilson’s unbending style is unable to underscore that point. Those who want to be drawn into the action of an opera will find that Wilson’s rigorous approach deliberately pushes against emotional involvement.
The libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni is based on Friedrich Schiller’s 1801 German adaptation of Italian Carlo Gozzi’s original 1762 commedia dell’arte play which in turn was based on a story set in Russia in the Persian epic Haft Peykar (1197) by Nizami Ganjavi. In the opera Calaf (Sergey Skorokhodov*), Prince of Tartary has fallen in love with the beautiful Princess Turandot (Tamara Wilson†), daughter of the Emperor Altoum (Adrian Thompson). In revenge for the death of a female ancestor at the hands of her male suitor, Turandot poses three questions to every potential suitor for her hand. Failure to answer the questions results in death.
Against the advice his father Timur (David Leigh‡) and Timur’s slave Liù (Joyce El-Khoury§), who loves Calaf, Calaf announces himself as Turandot’s next suitor. Yet, even though he answers all three questions correctly, Turandot still refuses to marry him. In response Calaf poses Turandot a question that she must answer by the dawn of the next day.
I don’t want to get involved in the current agonizing over “cultural appropriation” in Turandot except to say that if political correctivists take issue with an Italian opera based on a German adaptation of an Italian play based on a Persian story set in Russia, they should also take issue with Akira Kurosawa’s films based on Shakespeare – Throne of Blood (1957) on Macbeth and Ran (1985) on King Lear – and Maxim Gorky – The Lower Depths (1957) – or Park Chan-wook’s recent film The Handmaiden (2016) based on Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith (2002) set in Victorian Britain and the many other adaptations of European works by Asian playwrights and filmmakers. They would also have to object to the Japanese use of Roman drapery on the Great Buddha at Kamakura (1252) and other artistic styles that travelled between Europe and Asia on the Silk Road. In any case, filmmaker Zhang Yimou staged Turandot in the Forbidden City in Beijing in 1998 to great acclaim from Chinese audiences with only the state-run Chinese media objecting to its negative depiction of Chinese royalty.
Robert Wilson’s production circumvents the issue of culture entirely through the extreme abstraction of its presentation. First of all, there is no question of “yellowface” since all of the characters wear white greasepaint. Jacques Reynaud’s costumes draw from all sorts of Asian sources, not just Chinese. The Chinese nobles are clad in Korean gwanbok with their distinctive samo hats. Turandot herself wears a traditional Qing empress headdress but made in a Korean, not Chinese, style and completely devoid of the ornaments which an original headdress of the period would have had. Her outer robe is bright red and, also contrary to traditional style, completely unadorned. Meanwhile the military personages are clad in armour like the demon guardians of Thai Buddhist temples with their distinctive upturned pauldrons. The chorus of peasants wear a wide array of Asian modes of hairstyle and hats. The Emperor’s three ministers, Ping, Pang and Pong – whose names Wilson has gratefully changed to Jim (Adrian Timpau), Bob (Julius Ahn) and Bill Joseph Hu) – are dressed in European suits of the 1920s. The libretto makes these three the main commentators on the action and Wilson uses their costuming and silent movie-like gestures to set them even more apart from the other characters.
Wilson has choreographed every aspect of the production. The principals join in communal hand gestures but also have their own restricted individual hand gestures. Movement on the stage is symmetric, repetitive and circumscribed to forward and backward and one step to each side. Singers face front and sing directly to the audience, not to each other. When Liù commits suicide, she mimes having a knife, she does not fall but remains standing and only a head gesture and a fading light suggests what has happened.
The only characters free from the grid-like blocking of the others are Jim, Bob and Bill who move in curlicue patterns and jump up, ankles together, in the manner of silent movie comedians like Charlie Chaplin. Strangely enough, this form of stylized comedy becomes more tiresome than the chess-piece-like movements of the other characters. Wilson says in his Note that he is trying to recall the commedia dell’arte tradition of Gozzi’s play. Yet, Turandot has so many origins that Gozzi’s play need not be singled out. In fact it is often far more satisfactory to treat the three ministers as serious critics of the current cruel regime. The now legendary Hungarian 1995 production directed by Balász Kovalik treats the three as active agents for political change.
The set consists primarily of black panels that glide past each other during the action. Robert Wilson’s lighting changes are sudden as when the cyclorama suddenly changes from white to red when the Prince of Persia is executed. More annoyingly, the brightness of the fluorescent tube that runs the length of the floor of the stage can suddenly change from mild to blinding to emphasize key points in the drama.
The extremely abstract nature of the production conveys the atmosphere of ritual and restriction as if it extracted the essence of the story while leaving its orientalist decoration behind. Yet, Wilson also leaves character interaction behind which would bring it to a more human, less mechanical, level. Given the statue-like posture required of all the performers, except the three ministers, the singers really are left with only their faces and voices to mirror their emotions.
Some singers master this limitation better than others. Chief among these is Tamara Wilson as Turandot. Wilson puts enormous power behind her pure tones which she makes frighteningly icy as the Turandot of the first half of the opera. Yet, Wilson can soften her tone as in her narrative about her betrayed ancestress and even more importantly when she first realizes she is in love. Though Wilson has Turandot’s face look as rigid as a mask, Wilson has Turandot react with growing fear each time Calaf answers one of questions correctly. When Turandot finally admits she in love, Wilson relaxes the rigidity and we finally see the human face where the rigid mask had been.
The same cannot be said about Sergey Skorokhodov as Calaf. He has a huge tenor voice but virtually no expressivity especially since he tends to sing forte throughout. His face, too, wears the same blank expression no matter what he sings so that his character is even more abstract than Robert Wilson intended. Skorokhodov gives a loud, ringing account of the opera’s most famous aria “Nessun dorma”, but he delivers it in such a bombastic manner that we don’t really care whether he wins in the morning or not.
In complete contrast to Skorokhodov is Joyce El-Khoury as Liù. Even given the schematic movements and gestures that Wilson has imposed on the cast, El-Khoury’s rich voice and wide range of facial expressions make her the most human, most relatable character on stage. Her lush mezzo-soprano is imbued with warmth and her her pianissimi are exquisite.
Bass-baritone David Leigh also succeeds in bringing out the humanity of Calaf’s father Timur through the passion he lends to Timur’s various utterances, especially in his mourning over Liù and in his anticipation of his own death.
Although Wilson’s interpretation of silent movie comedy is to have Jim, Bob and Bill hop about like jumping jack toys, when the three remain stationary they do communicate some sense of their characters’ humanity, especially in their meditation on the peace they love in their country retreats. The voices of Adrian Timpau, Julius Ahn and Joseph Hu are well matched and blend perfectly.
Adrian Thomson makes a fine Emperor Altoum who conveys deep regret at having to carry out Turandot’s bloodthirsty oath. Thomson’s voice sounds sufficiently aged but steady even though he does not appear at all comfortable on the swing he sits on lowered below the proscenium but still high above the stage.
As usual the COC Chorus under Sandra Horst sounds glorious in the opera’s many choral moments and the COC Orchestra produces a magnificent sound and creates a majestic sweep under maestro Carlo Rizzi, who conducts the work from memory.
Robert Wilson’s ritualistic staging is not difficult to get used to and if it allows a great opera to be performed during a spike in political correctness then so be it. Wilson’s production is visually striking no matter how abstract it is and to hear Tamara Wilson, El-Khoury, the COC Chorus and the COC Orchestra in top form immensely satisfying.
*Kamen Chanev sings Calaf October 23 & 25.
†Marjorie Owens sings Turandot October 23 & 25.
‡Vanessa Vasquez sings Liù October 15, 17, 23 & 25.
§Önay Köse sings Timur October 23 & 25.
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.
Photos: Tamara Wilson as Turandot and Sergey Skorokhodov as Calaf; Joseph Hu as Bill, Sergey Skorokhodov as Calaf, Julius Ahn as Bob and Adrian Timpau as Jim; scene from Turandot with Adrian Thomson aloft as Emperor Altoum; Tamara Wilson as Turandot. © 2019 Michael Cooper.
For tickets, visit www.coc.ca.