There are always elements of Turandot, the famous Puccini opera, that are hard to swallow: overt sexism, implied rape, uncomfortable racist elements and a disturbing, implausible conclusion. Ideally, the strange beauty of Puccini's music and the extravagance of the spectacle are redeeming. But in the Dallas Opera's opening performance Friday night, disappointing singing from both lead characters and a weak performance by the orchestra only enhanced this opera's flaws.
TDO's current production of Turandot is pretty traditional but also beautiful. Set in ancient China, the story demands an opulent spectacle, and Allen Charles Klein's production is just that. A giant, twisting dragon is the focal point of the set. In one of its talons it holds a luminescent pearl, which acts very effectively as a shimmering, milky moon in most scenes. When the full cast of singers with chorus, children's chorus and supernumeraries (non-singing extras) is on stage, the effect is rich, exotic and romantic.
The makeup and costuming (by David Zimmerman) might seem to present uncomfortable clichés of Asian culture. Even the score -- marked by Puccini's use of pentatonic scales, pedal tones and open fourths -- sounds today like hackneyed musical stereotyping. But this opera was composed during the early 1920s, when European perceptions of not only Asian but also Middle Eastern, African and American cultures were vague, misguided and influenced by imperialist beliefs. Are we still, in 2013, okay with this kind of obvious stereotyping of an entire culture for the sake of an opera? With productions of Turandot, it's hard to avoid, but it's a conversation worth having.
One of the best things about Turandot is its pacing. With three pretty evenly divided acts (and two intermissions), it moves quickly. The action is set into motion at the very beginning when an edict is read explaining princess Turandot's demands on her suitors: if they want her hand in marriage, they must first answer three riddles and, if they fail to answer correctly, it's off with their heads.
In the first act, Calàf, a mysterious stranger to everyone in town, watches the beheading of one of Turandot's failed suitors. He instantly becomes obsessed with the cruel princess behind the execution. How could anyone be so enticing and beautiful that all these men would willingly risk their life for a chance to be with her? But on Friday night the princess' dramatic reveal was flubbed by set problems, causing dramatic and musical confusion. Regardless, and ignoring the advice of everyone on stage, Calàf becomes obsessed with Turandot and announces his desire to take her cruel test by sounding a giant gong.
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Lise Lindstron, as Turandot, plays the role a little too cold and icy, and her singing voice, while powerful, is shrill. This makes Calàf's instant obsession with her hard to believe, and his constant pining more annoying than impassioned. Antonello Palombi (Calàf) struggled vocally on Friday night, with higher notes sounding strained rather than warm. The chemistry between the two was unbelievable, making the final scene -- in which Calàf violently forces himself on Turandot (with a kiss) and then she inexplicably and instantaneously changes her mind about everything and falls in love with him -- even more disturbing than usual.
If this opera's ending seems abrupt and inconsistent, it's not entirely the fault of Lindstron and Palombi. Puccini died of lung cancer before he finished it, and scholars are not sure how he would have completed it (it was finished after his death by one of his students). It takes carefully constructed and nuanced acting from both lead roles to make Turandot's neatly tied up happy ending work. Unfortunately, this production doesn't achieve believability.
On Friday night, the breakout stars came from smaller roles. As the slave girl Liù, Hei-Kyung Hong was the best actress on stage. Especially in the upper ranges, her voice was warm and her fluttery vibrato so delicate that it sounded like magical butterflies were released from her throat every time she opened her mouth. She left us wanting more. As Timur, Liù's aging companion, Christian Van Horn gave the night's strongest vocal performance. His rich bass was warm, broad and strong enough to carry above the over-bearing orchestra.
The Achilles heel of this production was the orchestral performance. Marco Zambelli's overly enthusiastic interpretation missed the mark on every front, giving the impression of a rehearsal rather than a polished opening-night performance. In addition to drawing inconsistent intonation from his musicians, Zambelli's tempos were all over the place, making it difficult for the production to gel. The chorus, while it struggled to connect with the flailing orchestra, gave a solid performance, and the children's choir, lead by Melinda Cotton, sang elegantly, providing moments of transcendence amidst the mess.