Washington Opera’s revival of Puccini’s Turandot should carry the warning sticker “For Opera Fanatics Only.” Anyone seeking exotic spectacle, sublime conducting, a credibly played love story, or a transformative musico-dramatic experience might just as well stay home. Canary fanciers, however, will be pretty damn happy.
WashOp has assembled the kind of knockout vocal cast that deflects attention from the questionable aspects of the production. It’s the same kind of trick Puccini pulled off in writing Turandot. No one’s going to call this opera a feel-good romance: A cold-blooded boy-gets-girl recounting of Prince Calaf’s single-minded quest for the ice princess to end all ice princesses,
it wastes no time mourning the also-ran suitors whose heads adorn the palace walls.
But just as we come to realize that Calaf is little more than an insufferable prick drunk on his own testosterone, Puccini has him sing an aria of such surpassing beauty we’re ready to step over the headless bodies of his rivals and hand him Turandot ourselves. And when Turandot’s pathological lack of compassion at the ritual suicide of Calaf’s devoted slave girl, Liù, threatens to distance us from the ever-darkening plot even more, the composer wallops us with a radiant love duet between prince and princess that has us weeping over the redemptive power of love. Turandot is a textbook example of form obliterating content, of the music telling a far more compelling story than the action does.
WashOp’s production is all about the musicmore specifically, the singingand Alessandra Marc’s assumption of the title role has, rightfully, garnered the most press. In an age when praise is indiscriminately lavished on mediocre or burned-out voices, it’s a pleasure to encounter the real thing. Marc’s instrument isn’t flawless: There’s an edgy finish to some of the highest notes, the lower register projects with far less heft than the rest of the voice, and there are times when engagement with the words is sacrificed to the production of a luxuriant tone. But that toneplush, deeply and securely seated, radiantly expansive on top and full of complex layers of coloris of a kind seldom heard nowadays. Big enough for Wagner, satiny enough for Strauss, and sounding very much at home in Puccini’s brand of lyricism, Marc’s voice has listeners reaching back for names such as Rosa Ponselle, Leontyne Price, and the young Jessye Norman for comparison.
But if Marc’s instrument is as grandly proportioned as those of her golden-age forbears, so, alas, is her physical frame. Those who don’t subscribe to the voice-is-everything aesthetic of opera will no doubt scratch their heads over the casting of the ample, middle-aged Marc in the part of the dainty, adolescent Chinese princess Turandot. Of course, Puccini crafted a nearly impossible role to cast. Like Wagner’s Siegfried and Strauss’ Salome, Turandot needs to look like a sexy teenager, sing with a gargantuan sound, and evince a sensitivity to text that usually takes decades to develop. Hence the recent casting of sopranos such as Montserrat Caballé, Linda Kelm, Jane Eaglen, Sharon Sweet, and Marc, who are qualified to sing Turandot but overqualified to fit her costumes. Historical photos and recordings suggest that Maria Jeritza, Maria Cebotari, Inge Borkh, and, to a certain extent, Katia Ricciarelli came closer to pulling off the Turandot hat trick of stunning looks, adequate lung power, and interpretive smarts. But we’re talking about a handful of singers over three-quarters of a century. (An ideal candidate for a triple-threat Turandot appears to be waiting in the wings, however: Galina Gorchakova, last season’s WashOp Tosca. When will someone tap her for the part?)
The vocal weight vs. biological weight issue is the great eggshell-walking topic in opera. Voice mavens don’t bat an eye when Caballé sings the frail consumptive Mimì in La Bohème or when Pavarotti, lamed by his girth, is helped about the stage like someone’s grandfather as he plays the virile young army commander Rodamès in Aida. Those searching for a night of credible theater, however, witness such spectacles with their faces frequently in their hands. Sometimes, though, even we face-clutchers just have to say, “Yeah, that voice is amazing” and bite the bullet. And despite acting that ranges from the touching to the cartoonishas well as such disheartening moments as her effortful descent down a cruelly long flight of stairsMarc’s Turandot demands to be experienced.
Ana Maria Martínez’s Liù is both simply acted and exquisitely sung, her high notes floating on the finest thread of sound, her warm, oscillating vibrato filling out Puccini’s seductive melodies very satisfyingly. This star of WashOp’s El Gato Montez from several seasons back just keeps getting better and better.
Like his female costars, Ian DeNolfo is something of a throwback. His is the kind of foundation-rattling tenor that Mario Del Monaco and James McCracken were celebrated for, and ever since DeNolfo appeared here in Otello last year (sharing the role with José Cura), his voice seems to have taken on more baritonal color, even greater size, and, on the down side, a resistance to vocal and dramatic nuance. He basically stands and belts the role of Calaf with all the subtlety of a reactor core melting down: “Nessun Dorma” is pretty much muscled through, and there are places throughout where he just shouts. But his is nonetheless a thrilling, stunningly virile instrument (think a more ursine Lando Bartolini), and his brands of shameless tenorizing and go-for-broke lung power are real rarities in the opera world these days. And Rosendo Flores follows up his zany Barber of Seville Basilio with a movingly acted, nobly sung Timur (the blind, dethroned king who follows his son, Calaf, around only to be ever more marginalized as the prince falls into lust).
Heinz Fricke is, as ever, a reliable presence on the podium, but Turandot is clearly not a work that engages his sympathies enough for him to make anything memorable of Puccini’s Technicolor scoring. The orchestra certainly rises to the big momentsit makes a mighty noise during the finaleand Fricke gives his singers ample breathing space in which to phrase their arias. But for all his solid detail work, Fricke misses the ripeness, the heart-on-the-sleeve expansiveness, the epic sweep of the score. If nothing Fricke does could be fairly called wrong (barring a few surprising opening-night moments when the orchestra fell out of step with the vocalists), there’s still the nagging feeling that something isn’t quite right.
When this production debuted, in the early ’90s, I commented about the laughably overwrought stage business given to the chorus in Act 1, mentioning how, at one point, the singers all halted in their tracks and did the Wave, and how the only schtick missing was the hootchy-kootchy. (After my review ran, two choristers I knew cornered me to say that they had led a sizable chunk of the chorus in the hootchy-kootchy during one performance just to see if anyone would notice it among the mayhem surrounding them. No one did.) Things haven’t changed much this time around: The chorus’s antics look no less goofy, though it sings with wonderful punch and fervor. The rest of Lotfi Mansouri’s stage direction seems concerned, above all, with moving bodies around a set that’s too big by half.
But, as we all know, there’s size, and then there’s size used cleverly. Designer Zack Brown could have gotten away with far fewer clunky painted platforms and spent his resources suggesting the scope of what we can’t see of the princess’s palace and the public square. As it is, the set, for all the stage acreage it covers, seems dinky and prosaic, and only the expressionistically colored drops make a vivid impression. (And whose bright idea was it to fly in Emperor Altoum in what looks like a psychedelic rice bowl?)
Most of the costumes were designed by Brown, but additional ones have been brought in from the Florida Grand Opera, and the disconnect is uncomfortable: Broadly conceived fairy-tale figures are made to inhabit the same world as peasants in realistic (or what passes for “realistic” in the Opera House) rags. What could have made a striking contrast comes off as a haphazard amalgam of styles. Joan Sullivan-Genthe bravely attempts to light the production’s mix of inappropriate zaniness and even less appropriate stodginess, of Day-Glo camp and vague intimations of naturalism, but comes up just as short as the other designers.
Close your eyes, though, and this is one gorgeous Turandot. CP