Review: San Francisco Opera’s Treasured “Turandot” – Stemme, Crocetto, Howard Join Cast, November 18, 2017

The San Francisco Opera resumed its Fall 2017 performances of Puccini’s “Turandot”, for a November-December run of six perfomances, with changes in three of the four principal cast member assignments and a new conductor’s company debut.

Previously I reviewed the first and fifth of San Francisco Opera’s September run of Puccini’s “Turandot[See Review: San Francisco Opera’s “Turandot” – Sonic Splendor, Visual Delight – September 8, 2017 and A Second Look: San Francisco Opera’s “Turandot” – September 24, 2017.] This review will focus on what is new, but will reflect my strong belief the the “Turandot” production created by British artist David Hockney is a world treasure.

Nina Stemme’s Turandot

The performance was the occasion was the return to the War Memorial Opera House, after an absence of six years, of the Swedish soprano Nina Stemme. Her powerful, focused dramatic soprano voice was enlisted for Turandot’s opening aria In questa reggia that lies treacherously high in the soprano range. A daunting assignment for any soprano, Stemme was impressive throughout the aria and the following “riddle scene”.

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

Over the decades at the San Francisco Opera, most artists who have sung the role of Turandot were also associated with Wagner’s dramatic soprano roles. Stemme’s performances at the San Francisco Opera previously have been in the Wagnerian repertory – Senta in “The Flying Dutchman” and Brünnhilde in the three operas of the “Ring of the Nibelungs” in which the character appears  [see Glorious “Götterdämmerung”: Nina Stemme Glistens – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2011.]

Leah Crocetto’s Liu 

Soprano Leah Crocetto’s Liu was both vocally and dramatically persuasive in the role of the self-sacrificing slave girl Liu. Crocetto’s warm, vibrant soprano evoked heartfelt emotion for both Liu’s great arias Signore, ascolta and Tu che di gel sei cinta.

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

Crocetto’s career has been associated with and encouraged by the San Francisco Opera. Crocetto first sang the role of the slave girl Liu when the Hockney “Turandot” production opened San Francisco Opera’s 2011 season [Luisotti Leads Superb “Turandot” Cast In David Hockney’s Treasured Production – San Francisco Opera, September 9, 2011], in what proved an early career triumph [see Rising Stars: An interview with Leah Crocetto.]

Soloman Howard’s Timur

As the blind deposed emperor of a far-off land, wandering in exile with the aid of Liu, the debuting Soloman Howard made a strong impression, his deep basso brilliantly resounding in the War Memorial Opera House’s supportive acoustics.

[Below: the blind Timur (Soloman Howard, right) is surrounded by the people of Peking (San Francisco Opera chorus); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

I have witnessed bass Soloman Howard’s success in operatic roles, both large and small, in works of Mozart, Verdi and Gounod at the Washington National Opera, Santa Fe Opera and Glimmerglass Festival. His auspicious San Francisco Opera debut suggests we are hearing him in the early years of an important international career.

Brian Jagde’s Calaf and Other Cast Members 

Each of the other cast members, led by spinto tenor Brian Jagde, have now sung seven of the 12 scheduled performances split between September and November/December.

Jagde, whose Calaf was vocally strong and dramatically fully realized at his season-opening role debut in September, exuded confidence and even greater swagger in his November return.  Fully in command of the role’s vocal demands, his third act aria Nessun dorma was, as is expected in a performance by a world-class Calaf, a sensation.

[Below: Prince Calaf (Brian Jagde) beats the gong, signaling his willingness to bet his life on answering three riddles; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The other returning principals were the three high ministers, Ping (Joo Won Kang), Pang (Julius Ahn) and Pong (Joel Sorensen), who continued to amaze in the precision of their choreographed movements and their humorous antics all wrapped in costume designer Ian Falconer’s exotic outfits.

Robert Brubaker, who has had important comprimario assignments throughout this, his San Francisco Opera debut season, returned as the Emperor Altuom.

Maestro Christopher Franklin and the San Francisco Opera Orchestrau and Chorus

The evening’s conductor, making his San Francisco Opera debut, was Maestro Christopher Franklin, who showed a command of the rich sonorities of Puccini’s opulent score, eliciting a brilliant performance from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

[Below: Maestro Christopher Franklin; edited image, based on a Donato Bellomo photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

“Turandot” is one of the great choral operas, and the San Francisco Opera Chorus, under the leadership of Ian Robertson, sang with precision while energetically performing elaborate hand gestures created for this production.

Further Notes on a “World Treasure”

I have long regarded the David Hockney production, created for the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the San Francisco Opera in 1992 (first seen in San Francisco the following year), as a world treasure – a work of art that requires the resources of a great opera company such as those of San Francisco and Chicago – world class singers, orchestra and chorus, and an appropriate performance venue.

San Francisco Opera performances in the War Memorial Opera House are a perfect place to appreciate Hockney’s work.

[Below: Liu (Leah Crocetto, center, below) stands alone while the people of Peking (the San Francisco Opera chorus) react to the imperial soldiers; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Having seen the production in San Francisco eight times, including at least one performance in each of the five seasons it has been presented since 1993, I have new insights into the production every time.

Each of the costumes designed by Ian Falconer, who was Hockney’s collaborator on several of his operatic projects, is a wonder.

[Below: Turandot (Nina Stemme, left) announces to her father, the Emperor Altuom (Robert Brubaker, center, at top) that she knows that name of the unknown prince (Brian Jagde, right) is love; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


I recommend the production and cast enthusiastically, for both the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera.