Lise Linstrom singing "In questa reggia"
Turandot is always a bit of an odd opera. Its title role does not sing until after the first interval.And its a role that often seems to end up as being judged not by how well the lead soprano sings, but is she loud enough to be heard, because the role is such a cruel piece to sing, that only the largest voices can do it justice. Which often means we miss out on the other things this role needs. The ability to turn from the ice maiden into the woman in love in a short space of time. The ability to convey the idea that everyone is afraid of you.
So, for this cinema production of Turandot, we have a soprano who I only knew of by reputation. But, what a big reputation. People who heard her in London in the theatre for this run, described her as the best Turandot since Gwyneth Jones, without Jones' wobble. A big call, to be sure, but having heard her in the cinema I can see why. Lise brings a very loud focused voice to this role. Her voices is totally at her command, no wayward notes, no spread top, everything totally controlled. To be sure, her quiet notes are not always as pretty as some, but, when you can sing with such a potent clarion tone, so reliably, who really cares in this role? She portrays the ice cold princess well, yet also portrays the eventual realisation that she actually loves this man well. Why, we never really work out, but then, it is opera, do they need a reason, besides the glorious music? Not to mention, a truly extraordinary In questa reggia (see above)
So, in many respects, this performance was all about worshiping the current great Turandot. That is not to say that there were not other things good about it, But her performance stood head and shoulders above the others. The first act in some respects seemed dull, lacking in fire. Dare I say it was because we did not have our Turandot? Certainly no one else on the stage was making that sort of performance that stood out as amazing. When the best thing on the stage besides the Turandot is the combination of Ping, Pang and Pong, you know that the other leads lack fire.
The Calaf (Marco Berti) spent the first two acts basically doing a Pavarotti stand and bellow. Which is fine, if you can sing like Pavarotti. If you can't you really need to offer more. To be sure, he sang with a big bold Italianate sound, full of ardour, but he scattered off pitch notes freely around the stage, only really coming good both with physical acting and pitch in the final act. That the Royal Opera cannot provide a better tenor than Opera Australia did with Rosario LaSpina (which several people commented on in the cinema) probably says all you need to know.
Even the Liu of Eri Nakamura only really came good in her final scene. Her Signora ascolta gave every appearance of a singer trying too hard, of working to make the sounds, rather than trusting in her voice to do its job and focus on portraying her character. Again, Opera Australia has a history of great singers in the role with Hyeseoung Kwon, for example, singing this aria and leaving the audience teary eyed. Did not happen here. However, her final scene was much more affecting, and did bring a lump to the throats of many.
On the other hand, the energetic trio of Ping (Dionysios Sourbis) Pang (David Butt Phillip) and Pong (Doug Jones) were very strong performers. They took their long scene and made it memorable. Their interaction with the rest of the cast was also strong. How they kept the energy up to perform what amounted to almost ballet while still singing, was beyond me, but they did it, and did it well.
Also, credit must go to the ballet and chorus who performed admirably. With such a frenetic staging, the dancers seemed constantly on the move in every crowd scene, while in many scenes, it is the chorus who must carry the most music. The sounds produced by them continue to be some of the best opera choral work I around at the moment.
However, for all its frantic movement, clearly Asian inspired (I was seeing a mix of Chinese opera as well as the tai chi that the choreographer claimed) I still found this at its heart a very traditional production. There was a strong sense of place, the costumes were all clearly designed as ancient Chinese, and the story was basically told clearly, with very little deviation from what is written. And, the score and the libretto were allowed to work their magic. And it worked. It worked mainly because of the strength of the Turandot, but, it worked. And we knew that we had seen a great performer in what is her signature role. That the others failed to live up to her so prominently is something that the Royal Opera should be considering.
Rosario La Spina singing in the Opera Australia production