Thanks to the babbling brook of social media, with enticing interviews and previews posted to Seattle Opera Blog -- to Jonathan Dean and his group -- a slow, soothing, continuous presence on Twitter and Facebook, I didn't. If I had, I would be retroactively kicking myself for years to come.
The production, by the inseparable director/choreographer Renard Doucet and set/costume designer Andre Barbe and their long-time collaborator, lighting designer Guy Simard, is a visual and dramatic knockout in which both elements build and build, using about 100 people, including chorus and supers. Speight Jenkins explained that the orchestra uses 85 players -- the three percussionists were featured in an article in the program -- the same size as the orchestra for "Tristan und Isolde." What made it affordable is that it's a co-production with four other companies, Pittsburgh Opera, where it premiered last March, Minnesota Opera, where it goes next, Utah Opera, and Cincinnati Opera.
From the video linked above and some of the photos you can see the deliberately circular elements in the sets and costumes, representing the circle of life, and secondarily, at least to my eyes, the ways in which people are trapped in repetitive behavior. (As soprano Marcy Stonikas notes, in this staging, Ping, Pang, and Pong yawn before she sings "In questa reggia", because they've heard this dozens of times by now, at least from their incomplete count of fallen princes.) The center of the stage is a circular platform leading to an upstage tunnel, surrounded by a raked, ringed platform with single steps painted to look like blood-stained marble. In Act I, there was a simple, small two-tiered circular "wedding cake" platform in the middle of the platform, used by the dancers to create a number of striking images. Making a three dimensional globe were stage wide circular arches with circular motifs leading to a large circular moon (scrim) and, of course, the circular gong to the side. Reliefs of the heads of some of the unsuccessful suitors were hung in yet another circle. The director and designer took Chinese numerology into consideration, and it can't be a co-incidence that the only square (cubic) element was behind the circular scrim, the throne for the Emperor, since four is the number of death. As designer Barbe said,
"It starts with the moon. There’s this big circle onstage at the beginning of the first act, when they sing about the moon, which is the symbol of Turandot. And inside the moon there’s a box in which she and the Emperor, whom they call figlio del cielo (son of the skies) both appear. He’s literally carrying the sky on his shoulders, and he’s tired of doing this. He wants his daughter to marry and give him a grandson, some future."
With the exception of Calaf (black) and the three ministers (aqua), the sets and costumes were primarily bathed in red, a fortuitous color in China, or were in white, the color of mourning, for Turandot and her ladies. The costumes differentiated not only between the peasants and the court, but among the various factions and hierarchies of the court. The dancers' costumes especially wafted in the air as they moved, and were the most striking: in Act I, they dancers wore conical hats with a big red feather at the top, and armor like grey and silver grading to red, billowy bottoms, sleeves, and capes. In the choreography they stepped on the little wedding cake platform on the center platform facing each other, and joined arms, leaning back and creating a sunburst effect and then tilting forward touching feathers in the center, like a flower. In the second and last acts, the dancers costumes had four poles with billowing fabric and wore big headpieces; they had more challenging choreography, especially given the costumes. The maidens whom Ping, Pang, and Pong summoned to bribe Calaf into leaving avoided stereotypical shimmying, but instead shimmered in their white, silky dresses, like wisps of cloud.
Until the final over-the-top (in context) PDA embrace -- okay, thematically she show she's human and all and there's a new world order, but still -- there were reams of processional, ceremony, and formality, and Doucet's way of moving all of groups onstage with purpose and integrating them all, especially the dancers, and using gesture was spectacular. Speight Jenkins explained that Puccini wrote Ping, Pang, and Pong as Commedia figures, which Doucet ran with, even incorporating British music hall in the mix, giving them choreography and stage business more complex than Mao's women in the Met's "Nixon in China," with the added need for spot-on comic timing, which Patrick Carfizzi (Ping), Julius Ahn (Pang), and Joseph Hu (Pong) showed to perfection. Carfizzi, with his rich baritone, was the alpha of the three, and I curse the fog at SFO that delayed my June flight by five hours and made me miss his Henry Kissinger in "Nixon in China." The usually interminable "I have a dacha, oy, I need to retire, this job is killing me" scene at the beginning of Act II went by in a flash.
One of the most magical scenes was after the death of Liu, the point at which Puccini stopped composing before his death a few months later. The orchestra went silent, and as nearly 100 people slowly followed the funeral procession off into the wings, a single figure sat kneeling, until the stage was otherwise empty. He stood down stage center, and then ran into the tunnel and offstage, as if the soul of Puccini was being whisked away.
The attention to detail was amazing. For example, instead of a boisterous crowd knocking Timur to the ground, a peasant was manhandled downstage center by the royal guards as Timur and Liu made their way through the crowd, and it was he, blindly trying to escape the torture, who knocked down the blind man. I don't know how many of these moments I missed; it was like trying to watch a Ratmansky story ballet.
All of the depths and subtleties of the chorus and supers and their graceful interaction on stage made the four principal characters an issue dramatically. They had to stand out from the crowds, but at least in the Opening Night cast, they tended toward stock opera movement in sharp contrast to rest of the performers. It wasn't quite park-and-bark, but came dangerously close, particularly for Turandot Lori Philips and Calaf Antonello Palombi, who acted with a lot of bluster. I half expected him to pat Turandot on the head in the last act: he was cut out of the same testosterone-fueled, condescending, male-dominance cloth as Cavaradossi. His was the Captain Kirk of Calafs.
Usually it's Turandot who is considered the inhuman character/ice princess until she inexplicably falls for Calaf and does a 180. (Then everyone blames it on Puccini having died before finishing the work.) But Liu means as little to Calaf as she does to Turandot until about the very end, and his blustering outrage about her death is a bit late in the game, if he doesn't have an equal transformation to Turandot's. (Palombi didn't convince me that he suddenly turned into Mr. Sensitive or even Mr. Thoughtful.) In this staging, after Timur explains that Liu saved him and begged alms for him, Calaf went to his bag -- I half expected him to take out a few coins and toss them to her for her trouble -- and handed his father something to drink, ignoring the fact that Liu might be a little thirsty herself, having supported his father physically and emotionally in exile. (I didn't keep watching to see if Timur gave her a sip.) He's a royal, and the peasantry, no matter how close to him, is just not on his radar. In this production, Turandot is self-protective, afraid, and, eventually conflicted. It's not that she isn't moved by Liu, this strange creature who's willing to die for a man she barely knows, but her fear is driving all of her behavior. This is borne out in the libretto, in which, according to Jenkins, Puccini was not only a participant, but with which he wrote that he was satisfied.
Peter Rose, who played Timur in both casts, reminded me of the short story where an actor explains that to appear drunk convincingly, an actor has to try to move as if he were sober. His blind man would have been more effective if he had tried to walk like a sighted person. However, he shined after the death of Liu, his stentorian tones filling the house, and his curse on the kingdom was bone-chilling. Liu doesn't have much acting leeway, always trying to be helpful or recede into the background, and how much she's integrated into the action is largely dependent on chemistry with the other cast members.
In the Opening Night cast, I didn't see a lot of chemistry among the characters. Vocally Lori Phillips has a strong voice, but I found it much like other Turandot's I had heard, including my beloved Birgit Nilsson (on recordings): harsh and strident, although she was very moving in the scene in which after Calaf answers the riddles, she begged her father to let her out of the bargain, showing her fear and vulnerability. Lina Tetriani's Liu was strong, and she could float a nice pianissimo, and while a big, dramatic voice, I found it hard for the character. If Palombi's Calaf was thinking below the waist, his voice made it almost not matter: the sound is gorgeous and resonant, and it's easy to respond viscerally to it, like after swallowing a nice, warm brandy. He was made for Puccini's sweeping, dramatic lines.
In the Q&A after yesterday's matinee, Speight Jenkins said that this is the first production he's seen in which the dramatic parallels between "Turandot" and "Siegfried" were clear. I think this was obvious to anyone who had seen both operas, and the parallels actually extend back to "Die Walkure": a woman bargains with her father to create a heroic test, with failure=death (implied in the Ring), to vet prospective suitors, the father is happy with the hero -- although in "Turandot," he's not trying to match his daughter with his grandson -- and when that suitor passes the test, tries to convince him to leave her in her virginal state, even as her feelings awaken. What's most similar are the conversations and negotiations within the opera, and for that to work requires subtle listening and reacting in the moment.
For me, the second cast was golden. As Liu Grazia Doronzio had sweetness in her tone, and she filled McCaw Hall with a golden, drama-filled soprano with wide ranging dynamics and many colors. Luis Chapa doesn't have as big or naturally beautiful voice as Palombi, but he's an exponentially better actor and stage presence: he has the talent for stillness while commanding attention -- the only other male singer I've ever seen do this was Samuel Ramey as Pope Leo in "Atilla," a much smaller role -- and somehow showing the audience that he is thinking and absorbing what goes on around him. His "Non piangere, Liu" -- maybe my favorite tenor aria -- was not just "Here's a tissue, Liu," but conflicted, having just found his father and being about to risk it all. "Nessun Dorma" emerged out of the fabric of the scene, following Puccini's genius. In both the give-and-take of riddle solving and in the climactic duet towards the end of the opera, his attention to what Turandot was saying was palpable. As Timur contracted in agony as his son once again seemed to drag defeat from the jaws of victory (and with tragic results), instead of demanding his rights to marry her, he gave Turandot an option, not just because he's smug, although his Calaf was not lacking confidence, but because he wanted Turandot to come to him of her own will. It's not often we see a thinking man's Puccini tenor, but what was even more remarkable, was how much chemistry he had with Marcy Stonikas' Turandot. Perhaps the saying that there's nothing sexier than a man who listens bore fruit on that stage.
Stonikas has a big, beautiful, clear dramatic soprano sound, and she sang as if she understood every word, not just the general arc, and not only what she was saying, but what the other characters were, too. She reacted to specifics, and her thinking was clear, too, especially as she started to formulate her plans to learn Calaf's name, moments after he gave her an out. A former member of the Seattle Young Artists' Program, she doesn't have a very long performing bio, but any General Director with half and ear should be ringing her now and trying to book her years in advance. Her voice is epic. (ETA: Seattle Opera just posted a short excerpt to this page.)
It's almost getting to sound like a cliche to talk about the excellence of the Seattle Opera Chorus, but under Beth Kirshhoff's direction, Renaud Doucet's directing, and Asher Fisch's conducting, they sang and moved magnificently, and were the spine of the work. With so many players and so many sounds built in, a not-so-subtle approach can be exciting to hear, but, while it should seem obvious but doesn't always happen, Fisch listened and heard the score particularly its light and shade, and he got the orchestra to play it that way. (A small clip of Palombi at the end of Act II, but listen to what the orchestra is doing, too, especially the second half. It's what makes Fisch such a splendid conductor of Wagner and the orchestra consistently a glory of the Seattle Ring.)
To anyone in Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, and Cincinnati when this production comes along, run to see it.