Review: San Francisco Opera’s “Turandot” – Sonic Splendor, Visual Delight – September 8, 2017

San Francisco Opera has presented David Hockney’s enchanting realization of Puccini’s “Turandot” for five of its seasons since it debuted at the War Memorial Opera House, under Hockney’s direct supervision, in 1993. The vibrant colors of Hockney’s sets and of Ian Falconer’s exotic costumes exude splendor. A co-production with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the sets and costumes are world treasures.

[Below: David Hockney’s sets for Act I of Puccini’s “Turandot” in San Francisco Opera’s 2017 production revival; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Martina Serafin’s Princess Turandot

Austrian soprano Martina Serafin is a physically attractive Turandot, who displayed a mastery of the wickedly difficult high tessitura of her great opening aria In Questa Reggia and the subsequent Riddle Scene.

[Below: Martina Serafin as Princess Turandot; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Although this was my first opportunity to hear Serafin in the War Memorial Opera House (she had shared the role of the Marschallin in 2007 performances of Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” with Soile Isokoski), I had seen her perform the role of Maddalena di Coigny at the Zurich Opera in 2014.

Even though I have been present at memorable War Memorial Opera House performances of the opera by such luminaries as Birgit Nilsson, Montserrat Caballe and Eva Marton memorably performing Turandot, I regarded Serafin’s performance as extraordinary. She not only sang well, but had a dramatic allure that made Calaf’s attraction to the mysterious princess plausible.

Brian Jagde’s Prince Calaf

New York tenor Brian Jagde is enjoying an important international career as a go-to spinto tenor, yet is firmly associated with the San Francisco Opera, where he spent his early career as an Adler Fellow.

Jagde’s role debut as Calaf demonstrated that he has the requisite spinto power for the riddle scene. He also showed the lyricism needed for Nessun dorma, the aria that Puccini presciently predicted would rival Cavaradossi’s E lucevan le stelle from Puccini’s “Tosca” in popularity.

[Below: Brian Jagde as Prince Calaf; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.   

It is an honor for an artist to be cast by a major international company in an operatic role he or she has never sung before. The San Francisco Opera, that invited Jagde for role debuts as Pinkerton in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and Radames in Verdi’s “Aida”, continues to display high confidence in this young tenor’s career [See More Questions for the Calaf: A Conversation with Brian Jagde.]

Toni Marie Palmertree’s Liu

Pennsylvania soprano and Adler fellow Toni Marie Palmertree was an affecting Liu, exhibiting a large lyric voice with the expressiveness to convey both the strength and vulnerability of her character.

[Below: Toni Marie Palmertree as Liu; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.   

Palmertree’s reputation was enhanced when she substituted for an indisposed Lianna Haroutounian as Cio-Cio San in Puccini’s  “Madama Butterfly” in a performance during the San Francisco Opera’s Fall 2016 season. Given the task of covering another artist as Liu, Palmertree has taken over all six of that artist’s scheduled performance, after that artist had to withdraw for the season.

Raymond Aceto’s Timur

Ohio bass Raymond Aceto performs the role of Timur. Although Puccini, unlike Verdi, composed few important roles for the bass (Colline in “La Boheme” is the most famous), the role of Timur in “Turandot” is finely crafted.

The role is especially effective when performed by a mellifluous basso cantante like Aceto, who is the sole returning principal from the 2011 cast [Luisotti Leads Superb “Turandot” Cast In David Hockney’s Treasured Production – San Francisco Opera, September 9, 2011].

[Below: Timur (Raymond Aceto, center in purple tunic) is seized by guards; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

As Aceto’s voice has matured, it manifests both its power and inherent beauty. Aceto’s finely dramatic skills were enlisted for a sympathetic portrayal of the elderly Timur. [See A Conversation with Raymond Aceto – San Francisco Opera’s Timur in “Turandot”.]

Joo Wan Kang’s Ping, Julius Ahn’s Pang, and Joel Sorensen’s Pong and other cast members

The roles of Ping, Pang and Pong operate musically as a trio, with music and action so intertwined that the three artists playing the roles must spend as much time rehearsing their choreographed physical movements as their ensemble singing.

[Below: The ministers Pang (Julius Ahn, left), Ping (Joo Won Kang, second from left) and Pong (Joel Sorensen, right) confront the Unknown Prince, Calaf (Brian Jagde, second from right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

South Korean baritone and former Adler fellow Joo Won Kang takes on the role of Ping, the most important of his five San Francisco Opera roles to date. The excellent character tenor Joel Sorensen, a familiar presence in San Francisco Opera productions, is Pong. South Korean tenor Julius Ahn, who has sung Goro in “Madama Butterfly” in the opera’s two latest seasons at the War Memorial, is Pang.

Pennsylvania tenor Robert Brubaker made his San Francisco Opera debut as the Emperor Altuom. San Francisco Opera Choristers Virginia Pluth and Kathleen Bayler were Turandot’s handmaidens. Chorister Stephen Cannon was the Prince of Persia.

Maestro Nicola Luisotti and the musical performance

In his final weeks as Music Director of the San Francisco Opera, Italian Maestro Nicola Luisotti conducts six performances of “Turandot”, the opera chosen to open two of the nine seasons (2011 and 2017) he has served in that capacity [See A Second Look: Luisotti Improvises in “Turandot” Game Delay, then Hits a Grand Slam – San Francisco Opera, September 25, 2011].

The War Memorial Opera House, with its open orchestra pit and lively acoustics, is a felicitous venue for any of Puccini’s masterworks, especially with a brilliant cast conducted by Maestro Nicola Luisotti as was seen this night, but this “Turandot” production in the War Memorial setting is always a special experience, even by the San Francisco Opera’s high performance standards.

At the end of the performance (and the ensuing ovations), the audience was invited to remain for the presentation of the San Francisco Opera medal to Maestro Luisotti by General Director Matthew Shilvock and General Director Emeritus David Gockley.

[Below: the San Francisco Opera Medal, the company’s highest honor, is awarded Maestro Nicola Luisotti by General Manager Matthew Shilvock and General Director Emeritus David Gockley at the conclusion of the performance of “Turandot”; edited image, based on a Drew Altizer photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

David Hockney’s Sets and Ian Falconer’s Costumes

The revival of David Hockney’s production takes place in the artist’s 80th birthday year, in which important retrospectives of his artistic legacy are being celebrated.

[Below: the David Hockney sets for the first scene of the second act; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]    

I have reviewed several performances of Hockney’s productions, including his “Tristan” [See The Runnicles, Hockney “Tristan” in S. F. – October 22, 2006 and Liebesnacht: Treleaven’s Triumphant Tristan and Watson’s Wondrous Isolde at L. A. Opera – January 23, 2008 and Forbis, Voigt Brilliant as Lyric’s Tristan and Isolde – Chicago, February 24, 2009] as well as his “Turandot” elsewhere [See Lindstrom, Ventre, Jaho Brilliant in San Diego Opera’s Sensuous, Transcendent “Turandot” – January 29, 2011 .]

I have also enjoyed Hockney’s productions of Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” and Mozart’s “Magic Flute” at the San Francisco Opera and Richard Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten” at the Los Angeles Opera.

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

At present, all of these Hockney productions exist, although the storage of these stageworthy works of art, absent an international effort to preserve them, default to the ability of local opera companies to assume custodial responsibilities.

Similarly, the spectacular costumes designed by Ian Falconer should be considered an artistic heritage to be preserved.


I enthusiastically recommend this opera, cast and production, both for a veteran operagoer and a person new to opera, This production would be an excellent introduction to opera and, especially, to the experience of live performance in the War Memorial Opera House.

For my observance of the 50th anniversary of a San Francisco Opera performance, see: 50 Year Anniversaries: “Turandot” with Birgit Nilsson, Franco Tagliavini, Lorengar, Tozzi – San Francisco Opera, October 22, 1964