Review: Luisotti Leads Superb “Turandot” Cast In David Hockney’s Treasured Production – San Francisco Opera, September 9, 2011

A few physical opera productions should properly be considered works of museum-quality art. David Hockney’s production of Puccini’s “Turandot”, one of San Francisco Opera’s most spectacular productions, unquestionably belongs in such a category. (The production was co-produced with Lyric Opera of Chicago, where it premiered in 1992. The first performance in San Francisco in 1993 is available on DVD.)

Unlike virtually all other visual art, however, it cannot be effectively displayed in a building designed for housing paintings and sculptures, nor is the excellent DVD sufficient. Its full enjoyment ultimately requires a live performance.

To appreciate Hockney’s concept, one needs the darkened theatre with state of the art theatrical lighting; the required large orchestra; and nine principal singers whose movements are choreographed, and who are bedecked in Ian Falconer’s dazzlingly exotic costumes; all surrounded by the 150 costumed choristers and supernumeraries, engaged both in festive pageantry and acts of horror.

[Below: David Hockney’s first act set for Puccini’s “Turandot”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

These are the essential ingredients to appreciate Hockney’s ideas of how to bring to life Puccini’s sensuous music that envelops the fairy tale China of the ice princess Turandot.

A Feast for the Eyes

Hockney’s theories of the interplay of music, color and light are exemplified here as dramatically as in another Hockney masterpiece of performance art owned by a California opera company, his 1988 production of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” for the Los Angeles Opera.

But the “Turandot” emphasizes another element that is not so obvious in the fairly staid stage movements of “Tristan” – motion. Any production, of course, is a collaborative affair, and one’s creative ideas will be implemented by other artists, perhaps under the direct supervision of the production designer when it is new, but more often than not by other persons entirely for the later revivals.

San Francisco Opera’s 2011 production, stage managed by Garnett Bruce (with the assistance of Jose Maria Condemi), assembled a team that was faithful to the spirit of Hockney’s original production, yet always seemed as fresh and lively as it was exotic. A perceptive audience member should revel, in, for example, not only what the large chorus (double its regular size) sings, but how they move in unison, often conveying quick changes in mood, all part of a heightened visual experience.

A Feast for the Ears

I am such a fan of the Hockney “Turandot” production that I believe it can withstand an average performance. However, on this opening night of the San Francisco Opera’s 89th season, an elegantly dressed audience heard no average performance. Conducted by the masterful Nicola Luisotti, the augmented San Francisco Opera Orchestra was a sonic delight.

The nine principal singers, led by Swedish soprano Irene Theorin in the title role (her San Francisco Opera debut) and spinto tenor Marco Berti as Calaf, the Unknown Prince, were uniformly excellent.

[Below: Irene Theorin (in a costume designed by Ian Falconer) as Turandot; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Debuting at a new house as Turandot, of course, means that the artist is introducing herself to a new audience by means of one of the most treacherous six minutes in Italian opera, Turandot’s great aria In Questa Reggia. That aria provides an opportunity for exposition of the ice-queen’s pyschological backstory, but also exposition of the artist’s  vocal and emotional abilities.

Theorin, like such San Francisco Opera Turandots of the past half century as Birgit Nilsson, Amy Shuard, Eva Marton and Jane Eaglen, is famously a Wagnerian dramatic soprano, and brings power to the role when needed. But Theorin also approaches much of the role with a lyrical sensitivity and subtlety, reminding me in this or that phrase of a great Turandot appearing in this opera house whom no one would describe as a Wagnerian dramatic soprano – Montserrat Caballe.  But ultimately Theorin is a unique and gifted artist, yet another example of Sweden’s contributions to the role of Turandot.

The role of Calaf was sung effectively by Marco Berti, who, for the second time in three years, has been the lead tenor in a San Francisco Opera season opening night under Maestro Luisotti. Berti has the large voice of power that the role needs for such passages as Calaf’s demand to confront his fate that begins the Riddle Scene. He also has the lyrical qualities and expressiveness required for the first act aria Non piangere, Liu and for the opera’s most famous number, Nessun dorma.

The third largest role in length is actually the three mask roles – Ping, Pang and Pong, respectively sung by Hyung Yun, Greg Fedderly and Daniel Montenegro. Their intricate stage antics were humorous, even mesmerizing.  Interspersed with their savage sarcasm were beautifully sung moments of genuine pathos.

[Below: Prince Calaf (Marco Berti, left) cannot be persuaded by, from left to right, Pang (Greg Fedderly), Pong (Daniel Montenegro) and Ping (Hyung Yun) to abandon his plans; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Emerging as an audience favorite is Leah Crocetto, whose sensitively sung Liu is the San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow’s most important role to date. Her first act aria Signor, ascolta was affecting; but it was in Liu’s great final scene – in which she explains the power of love to Princess Turandot – that she was most effective, the blending of hers and Theorin’s voices particularly memorable.

[Below: Leah Crocetto as Liu; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

It is luxury casting to assign the role of Timur to an international calibre basso cantante like Raymond Aceto to the role of Calaf’s father Timur, but the relatively few lines this character sings are enhanced  by Aceto’s rich, dramatic voice and savvy acting skills.

Having heard Aceto in several of the great Verdi basso parts,  Zaccaria in “Nabucco”, Banquo in “Macbeth” and Fiesco Grimaldi in “Simon Boccanegra”, I am ready to hear him in the great basso roles written by the mature Verdi (such as Padre Guardiano in “La Forza del Destino” or, especially, Philip II in “Don Carlos”), all the better if Luisotti were to be the conductor.

[Raymond Aceto as Timur; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

I have defined the term “opera warhorses” to describe (affectionately) a group of standard repertory works that, in order of composition, begin with Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” (1786) and end with “Turandot” (1926). The latter is the only opera on that list for whom it is reasonable to expect that a number of persons in the audience would have been alive at the time of its first performance.

Because Puccini died before he finished the final scenes, it has taken decades for a relative consensus to develop on which “completion” of the opera one should use for actual performances. The production was built around the extended ending to Puccini’s unfinished opera written by Franco Alfano, in which Turandot and Calaf sort through their differences and appear as a couple before her father, the Emperor Altuom.

I believe the Hockney production not only works with that ending, but, recognizing some controversy may always exist, does an effective job of presenting why it is a worthy and desirable ending.

[Below: Turandot (Irene Theorin, left) and Calaf (Marco Berti, right) present themselves for the blessing of the Emperor Altuom (Joseph Frank); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The opera’s two comprimario roles, the Emperor Altuom and A Mandarin, were well done by, respectively, the veteran character actor Joseph Frank and the Adler Fellow Ryan Kuster in his San Francisco Opera debut. Lawrence Pech was choreographer. Christopher Maravich the lighting designer (based on the original lighting design by Thomas J. Munn). Ian Robertson as chorus master deserves credit for the brilliant chorus work.

San Francisco Opera is on an upward trajectory in terms of the quality of its performances and the “Turandot” is another example of the operatic Renaissance in San Francisco. Unsold tickets were commonplace in the first half-decade of the 21st century. Now, the “hot ticket” productions are occurring regularly. This is no exception.

My recommendation for those who think they might want to try “Turandot”: if you have an opportunity to obtain a seat for the San Francisco performances, you should take it.