Vancouver Opera's Turandot dazzles with bold sets, fresh insights, and powerful music

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      By Giacomo Puccini. A Vancouver Opera production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Friday, October 13. Continues on October 15, 19, and 21

      Vancouver Opera’s clever new production of Turandot offers up such stylized spectacle that you could almost enjoy it with earplugs in. You wouldn’t want to do that, though, because the lush orchestrations and powerful leads make equal magic.

      By creating a mythical, pastiche-happy version of “legendary Peking”, the Montreal creative team of director Renaud Doucet and set and costume designer André Barbe avoid the pitfalls of the kitschy, dated “Orientalism” of composer Giacomo Puccini’s time. Instead, they embrace and exploit the mashed-up, multicultural roots of Turandot, a Persian folk tale translated into French and German before it was adapted by an Italian librettist with a penchant for commedia dell’arte.

      In this mounting, royal advisers Ping, Pang, and Pong circumvent racial stereotype by becoming fantastical, culture-crossing clowns: they wear gondolier and top hats, with long johns under their neon-hued silk robes and martini shakers hidden in their attendants’ backpacks. The stage plays with circles upon circles (symbols of the cycle of life and death), the focal point a dramatic raked crescent of lustrous bronze topped by an ornately carved red arch. Blood drips down the steps, and expressionistic reliefs of chopped-off heads loom large on poles. Characters wear exaggerated headdresses, the emperor lording over everyone in a colossal antlerlike contraption, and masked executioners flash gigantic blades.

      The stage gradually opens into evermore elaborate portals and cells, making it a giant, red-and-reflective-gold puzzle box for the chorus of 52. In the opening scene, dressed in scarlet with Peking opera face paint, the support cast reaches up writhing from a central round pit, looking like Dante’s Inferno reimagined by German expressionist filmmaker Robert Wiene.

      Marcelo Puente surrounded by the culture-crossing (left to right) Ping (Jonathan Beyer), Pong (Joseph Hu), and Pang (Julius Ahn).
      Tim Matheson

      This is the first time the VO has staged Turandot in 12 years and it’s worth the wait. Doucet and Barbe have used these sets before—they're jointly owned by opera companies from Minnesota to Philadelphia. You can see the depth of thought that has gone into their interpretation of a work that stretches credibility, especially in its sudden romantic happy ending. (For the first time, the VO is also using Chinese surtitles alongside its English ones.)

      The duo's innovation goes beyond the striking visuals. They’ve striven to humanize the often-impenetrable characters. Turandot is a princess who beheads opponents (a young boy prince right off the top in this version), including any suitors who can’t answer her three riddles. Calaf falls hard for her—during an execution, of all things—and submits himself to the riddle session. What he can't see right in front of him is that his father’s devoted servant, Liù, loves him.

      Doucet brings some memorable new touches to the story. The princess appears to hesitate before ordering off someone’s head, and she throws herself into Calaf’s arms instead of waiting for him to force himself upon her in the final act. The prolonged silence as the massive chorus leaves the stage after Liù’s demise is epically moving.

      All the leads were debuting in their roles on opening night, and all excelled. Rising Argentinian tenor Marcelo Puente brought passion and poetry to his physically expressive Calaf, eliciting cheers with a clarion “Nessun dorma”, the opera’s hit aria. 

      As Liù, Marianne Fiset added just the right amount of sweetness to her mesmerizing pianissimo moments, yet you could feel her pain during a brutally staged torture scene. And Amber Wagner’s Turandot is formidable, bringing the psychological depth of another Wagner—Richard, of course—to her arias. You’ll marvel at the show-stopping volume and warmth she musters in the third act of her marathon.

      Under the baton of Jacques Lacombe, the Vancouver Opera Orchestra embraces the complex score, hitting a balanced tempo and highlighting the almost-cinematic touches of a composer who was exploring expressionism in his final work. The musicians reach overwhelming crescendos when necessary, and yet bring a deftly light touch when it’s time to summon Asian-inflected xylophone and the haunting warbles of wind instruments. 

      The chorus resounds, as it should, serving up a grand pageant of mandarins, wise men, executioners, and guards, with Doucet animating the tableaux with plenty of dance.

      The extended opening-night standing O said it all. This is a Turandot to please the eyes, brain, and ears—a bold, unusually dazzling vision that helps this old warhorse speak to new audiences.

      Beware the executioners in Turandot: heads will roll.
      Tim Matheson