Puccini’s Turandot by the St. Petersburg Opera

On Friday (June 5, 2015) my boyfriend and I went to the opening night performance of Puccini’s Turandot presented by the St. Petersburg Opera Company. There was a disastrous issue with the tickets and we nearly didn’t go at all, but thanks to four phone calls we made it on time (barely). Tip to the Palladium: be like the Straz and just send people paper tickets, it’s classier anyway. Regardless, before I start my review here is a description of the event from the opera company’s website:

Three riddles separate ordinary men from marriage to Princess Turandot, but the penalty for answering incorrectly is death. A mysterious foreign prince answers the riddles correctly, but magnanimously offers Turandot a chance to back out of the wedding if she can guess his true identity by morning.

No one in the kingdom will sleep while she tries to learn his name. Set in China, with dazzling costumes and stunning pageantry, Puccini’s final opera will fill your heart with sumptuously powerful music. Sung in Italian with English translations displayed above the stage. Starring Canadian soprano Susan Tsagkaris and Casey Finnigan, recently at Florida Grand Opera.

The plot of the opera itself was okay, I was really excited about it, but the male lead, Calaf, presents no motivation for wanting to marry Turandot aside from the fact that she’s pretty. Even when people beg him to leave town because they are afraid they’ll be executed he gives no reason for staying aside from the fact that he wants to. When Liu, his father’s slave and only really lovable character, sacrifices herself for him he’s like “thanks.” Not a likable guy, so when he prevails it’s like, who cares. Turandot, the princess who murders her suitors if they can’t solve her riddles, is provided with motivation. She explains that an ancestor of hers, a queen, ruled happily and alone until a man took a liking to her, abducted her and probably raped her, before murdering her. In honor of this ancestor she will never marry until someone solves the riddles. When Calaf does she asks him if he will rape her because she doesn’t want to be with him, and he says that he wants her to be full of passion. The way he gets it is pretty rapey though because it’s mostly by forcing himself on her with kisses, which works, somehow.

As for this specific production: the stage itself was fine, and I don’t need an elaborate stage to be happy, but it did creak a lot when the giant cast was moving around, which was distracting. The costumes were good, not great, with Turandot’s being the best. She had two costumes and both were really beautiful even from very far away (we were in the balcony). The downside is she was wearing high heels under that I saw a couple of times and it really snaps you out of the time period/setting. Calaf’s costumes were not so great, the first one didn’t look like it fit him at all and made him look really short. If I were him I’d be very irked. The ministers and emperor all had really good costumes (though the ministers had huge dots on their chests that made me think more of Japan than China). The huge cast of villagers had rag outfits with pointy hats that made me think of Raiden from the super old Mortal Combat movie (and I think it was BYO shoes for them). The dozen children who were clearly there to make parents buy tickets had cute white costumes, they looked very nice. The shirtless executioner and the nearly-shirtless belly dancers were, to me, inappropriate. I know it makes me sound like an old lady, but I don’t go to the opera expecting so much skin, it feels vulgar.

The staging was good, though at times the number of people on stage was distracting. Liu’s death was staged in a really strange way because the cast seemed to be saying things that indicated that she was off stage (or that they were), but they were all on stage together. Liu is tortured, but refuses to give up the information because she loves Calaf, and yet she just gets a light shove on stage. The lines she sings make very little sense because of how they staged it, and yet, Karen Ho (who plays Liu) is so talented I teared up a little when she died, which has never happened in the 17 years I’ve been going to operas. The ministers had all these gestures with fans and these odd movements, I wasn’t sure if it was racist or not, if that makes sense. The three ministers also had a scene where they sang about wishing they were home again and they had a piece of blue cloth they were moving to mimic waves: it was beautiful.

As for the principals themselves: Karen Ho’s Liu was my absolute favorite. She was the only Asian-looking woman on stage and yet she was not playing Turandot. Why? I thought she was way better than the person who did play Turandot, and my boyfriend’s theory is that she must have turned it down because Liu is a better part. This reminds me of the time I saw Otello and the man playing Otello was in black face while there was an African American man in the chorus. Whut? Over a decade later and it seems like it’s more of the same. I have no idea what happened here, but I feel like this was a missed opportunity. Turandot was okay, her voice sounded really tinny to us and she was drowned out by the small (half) orchestra on a couple of occasions. I just didn’t feel like her voice had the power behind it, which Calaf’s did, though it would come and go, like he was holding back. Maybe because it was opening night they weren’t really punching it for fear of blowing out their voices.

On the whole Turandot was worth seeing; it was Puccini’s last opera (first performed in 1926) and feels like a good starter opera to me, not too vocally complex, with a straightforward plot. It’s one of those operatic mainstays that I’ve never seen performed live, so I wanted to check it off the list, and I’m glad I went. The upcoming opera season has Carmen, which I’ve always wanted to see and never have, and La Boheme, the first opera I ever saw back in 1997. Should be fun!

Image and blurb via St. Petersburg Opera website.

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