Arts & Events

New: Opening Night Glitter at the Opera

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday September 11, 2017 - 11:31:00 AM

Opening Night at the San Francisco Opera is not quite the event it used to be, though it still has its share of glitter. However, I can recall opening nights when people who couldn’t afford tickets used to line the streets outside the War Memorial Opera House just to check out what the rich and gaudy were wearing, and TV crews lurked inside the lobby to film the high society crowd as they entered. Happily, none of this fashion-frenzy was on display at this year’s opening night on Friday, September 8. Mostly, what glitter on offer Friday was on stage, where David Hockney’s garish sets for Puccini’s Turando, which takes place at the Imperial Palace of Peking, glittered in lurid reds and greens, and the cast and huge chorus packed the stage wearing exotic and colorful costumes. 

Hockney’s sets for Turandot were first seen here in 1993 and have been restaged here ever since. Though I had attended most if not all of the Turandot productions featuring Hockney’s sets, they left no lasting impression on me. Nor did they this time around. Lurid spectacle is not what I’m looking for in coming to the opera, though impresarios of opera often lay on lurid spectacle with a heavy hand. What I come to opera for is, above all, great singing, and, hopefully, great music-drama. In these areas, Puccini’s Turandot garners only a B-minus grade in my book. Great music-drama it is not. And though this opera offers a few moments of fine music that may (or may not) be beautifully sung, on the whole it is perhaps my least favorite of Puccini’s operas. The main characters in Turandot are wooden: Calaf, who falls head over heels in love with Princess Turandot when he happens to catch a glimpse of her from afar, is impetuous and foolhardy; and Turandot herself is an ice-princess if ever there was one. Timur, the long-lost father of Calaf, is ravaged by old age and a hard life, and is nearly blind. He has little to sing and is merely a pathetic figure. He is helped through life by the slave-girl Liù, who is the only truly sympathetic character in the opera. 

Interestingly, in this Turandot the finest, most moving singing was supplied by the young Adler Fellow soprano, Toni Marie Palmertree, who sang the role of Liù. I had heard Palmertree before, when she sang an aria from I Pagliacci in the 2016 Adler Fellows Gala Concert. In reviewing her performance in that concert I sounded a note of caution, for although her voice has spectacular high notes that she delivers with great volume and coloration, I found little else in her singing that was in any way moving much less remarkable. Thus I feared Toni Marie Palmertree might fall into the one-trick pony category of singers who do one thing and only one thing well. Happily, Palmertree’s engaging peformance as Liù in Turandot puts that fear to rest. Her Act I aria, “Signore, ascolta!” when she tries to warn Calaf of the dangers he faces in trying to win Turandot’s love, started out in the one-trick pony genre, with Palmertree only singing movingly in the high notes sung fortissimo. But in the second and more extended section of this aria, Palmertree imbued even her softly sung phrases with great depth of feeling; and the big high notes were impressively there for her whenever needed. Moreover, Palmertree’s performance as Liù grew in matters of nuance and feeling as the opera progressed. 

As Timur, bass Raymond Aceto displayed a powerful voice that seemed strangely impressive from a character apparently so old and feeble. His Act I narrative of his lost battles as King of Tartary and subsequent exile, “Perduta la battaglia,” was sung with power and pride, though imbued throughout with self-pity at his fate, long cared for only by the faithful slave-girl Liù. When Calaf asks Liù why she remains so devoted to old Timur, Liù shyly replies that it’s because Calaf one day smiled at her long ago in the courtyard of Timur’s palace. 

In the role of Calaf, tenor Brain Jagde (pronounced Jade) was robust. Jagde’s voice is a baritonal tenor, long on power but short on nuance and coloration. Thus, Jagde’s voice fits quite well the part of the swaggering but somewhat wooden Calaf. His Act I aria, “Non piangere, Liù,” was movingly sung. Jagde’s Act III aria, the famous “Nessun dorma,” was ably, if not memorably, sung. Singing the role of Turandot was soprano Martina Serafin, a native of Vienna, Austria. Given that Turandot is seen (very briefly) but not heard in Act I, it is not until Act II that she gets to sing, as she tells of her beautiful ancestor, Princess Lo-u Ling, who was brutally slain by a conquering prince. Seeking to avenge her ancestor, Turandot poses three riddles to every man seeking to wed her. If they solve the riddles, they wed Turandot. If not, they have their head chopped off. Thirteen candidates have lost their heads this year alone. Martina Serafin’s Turandot sang with scathing venom as she reveled in the vengeance she enacted on each and every man. However, when Calaf successfully answers the three riddles Turandot poses him, he in turn poses a riddle to her. If Turandot can discover his name before dawn, he offers her his head. Yet Calaf is supremely confident he will win Turandot’s love.  

Throughout Acts I and II, three of the Chinese emperor’s ministers, comically named Ping, Pang, and Pong, try to dissuade Calaf from seeking to wed Turandot. Led by Ping, earnestly sung here by baritone Joo Won Kang, they lament the brutality of Turandot’s vengeful actions and they long wistfully for the more peaceful bygone days when they were happy in their country villages. The role of Pang was ably sung by tenor Julius Ahn, and the role of Pong was sung in lively fashion by tenor Joel Sorensen. As the aging Emperor of China, tenor Robert Brubaker sounded so weak it seemed he was on his last days. Perhaps Brubaker exaggerated the Emperor’s weakness on purpose. At least I’d like to think so. In the role of a Mandarin officer of the Emperor, bass-baritone Brad Walker had only a bit part, but he sang it well and powerfully. Two Handmaidens were ably sung by soprano Kathleen Bayler and soprano Virginia Pluth.  

Puccini’s orchestration for Turandot includes a Chinese gong, a xylophone, a harp, a celeste, a glockenspiel, an organ, and two alto saxophones plus expanded percussion. Several of his Chinese-inspired melodies were derived from a music-box lent to Puccini that played Chinese folk-tunes. San Francisco Opera’s Music Director Nicola Luisotti conducted this Turandot, and he led the orchestra, cast, and chorus in a finely honed interpretation of Puccini’s score. Incidentally, the score was left unfinished at Puccini’s death, with only sketches remaining for the opera’s final section. At the premiere of Turandot at Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1926, conductor Arturo Toscanini brought the music to a halt as the music for Liù’s funeral cortege faded away, and Toscanini announced that here the composer laid down his pen. The audience responded with heartfelt cries of “Viva Puccini!” The final section of Turandot as we know it was penned by Franco Alfano, who based his additions on the sketch notes left by Puccini. This San Francisco Opera production was capably directed by Garnett Bruce, with exotic costumes by Ian Falconer, original lighting by Thomas J. Munn, new lighting by Gary Marder, and choreography by Lawrence Pech. Chorus Director was Ian Robertson. 

Turandot repeats with this same cast throughout September, then will be performed with a new cast and conductor in November and December.