The production of Puccini’s Turandot that opened at the Four Seasons Centre last night is classic Robert Wilson and it works. Trademark Wilson elements included monumental sets, dramatic lighting, expressionist make up, slow, synchronized, stylized movement combining to form a stage picture that is dramatic, intense and at times thrilling. The element of artificiality seems well-suited to the curious tale of the mythical princess.

Tamara Wilson (Turandot) © Michael Cooper
Tamara Wilson (Turandot)
© Michael Cooper

There are some specific elements that emphasize the “fairy tale”, the unreal and the syncretic elements of Turandot. Timur, Liù, Calaf and the Emperor are white; costumes, hair, make-up. In contrast, Turandot is vivid scarlet and particularly striking when she makes her first appearance on a projecting platform about five meters above stage level. Calaf and Turandot never touch and in the finale Calaf disappears leaving the icy princess, perhaps having been touched by Love, alone as a vivid streak of white appears on the red backdrop. A tear perhaps? This conclusion justifies (for me) the use of the popular but overblown Alfano completion of the opera. Turandot may not be a monster, but she has not been humanized as the use of the alternative Berio scoring might suggest. The treatment of Liù is complementary in its absence of realism. When she “dies” she is still on her feet on the stage as other characters lament her. Only her lighting treatment changes.

Sergey Skorokhodov (Calaf), Joyce El-Khoury (Liù) and David Leigh (Timur) © Michael Cooper
Sergey Skorokhodov (Calaf), Joyce El-Khoury (Liù) and David Leigh (Timur)
© Michael Cooper

Wilson makes interesting and effective use of Ping, Pang and Pong to emphasize the syncretic nature of the piece and its commedia dell’arte elements. The three court officials are transmuted into Jim, Bob and Bill and are dressed in modern grey suits (apparently a change from the production’s original La Scala outing). They clown around in classic, almost excessive, commedia manner. The device successfully removes them from being participants into commentators.

Carlo Rizzi directed a reading of the score that was completely masterly with full support from orchestra, chorus and cast top to bottom. He produced dramatic and thrilling sounds when appropriate but was also a most sympathetic accompanist in the work's more lyrical moments. Tamara Wilson's Turandot was powerful and accurate with none of the ear-bleeding quality in the upper register to which one is sometimes subjected. Sergey Skorokhodov had the right sort of ringing high notes to pull off Calaf and did so without undue histrionics.

<i>Turandot</i> © Michael Cooper
Turandot
© Michael Cooper

Joyce El-Khoury was a most sympathetic Liù; sweet-toned but not lacking in weight. David Leigh, as Timur, looked like an old man but the voice was sonorous, solid and very powerful. Adrian Thompson, as the Emperor, singing suspended above the stage, was absolutely solid with none of the kitsch quaveriness sometimes used in the role. Along with Leigh’s solid sound it’s a good example of how Rizzi lets the music support the “cleanness” of Wilson’s production, cleanly produced voices supporting the essentially unhistrionic production. Adrian Timpau, Julius Ahn and Joseph Hu clowned effectively as Jim, Bob and Bill. Ensemble studio member Joel Allison made the most of his brief appearance as the Mandarin with a power that suggests much more to come.

This Turandot is not by any means a traditional production but it seemed to resonate even with the traditionalists in the audience. There was a standing ovation and no unseemly boos when the production team appeared. All in all, a very strong start to COC’s 2019/20 season.

****1