Right-Sizing Turandot at the Washington National Opera

When the Romanian theater director Andrei Şerban produced Gounod’s Faust at the Metropolitan Opera in 2005, he took an opera that thrives on intimate encounters and recast it as non-stop spectacle, a wild carnival of excess and distraction. It was a striking contrast to his quarter-century old production of Puccini’s Turandot, which turned one of the grandest of Italian operas into a chamber piece, enacted in an almost claustrophobic theater within the theater. It sounds perverse, but it was a stroke of genius. Originally staged for the Royal Opera House in London, Şerban ’s Turandot is now very well traveled, with more than 50 productions around the world.

On Saturday night, it opened again, this time at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The Washington National Opera can be clumsy when it comes to complex productions with lots of moving parts. But Şerban came to D.C. to restage his famous work, and despite a few glitches (and backstage noise) it looked tight and coherent and well choreographed (Kate Flatt).

The wisdom of Şerban’s approach, which encloses the action within a reproduction of a tiered wooden theater, with the chorus commenting on the action from the sidelines, was apparent the moment soprano Sabina Cvilak began Liu’s first act aria, “Signore, ascolta.” Liu is usually one of Puccini’s more thankless roles, a dull vision of innocence amidst a grand cavalcade of cruelty, exoticism and sensuality. She is a Chinese Micaela, the Bore of Beijing, a throw-away role for the piccola donna, with two good but not great arias that only hinder the audience’s real pleasure: The relentless forward motion of Puccini’s climaxes.

But Cvilak’s Liu was worth slowing down for. The Slovenian soprano is a fine singer, with a remarkably pure voice, a well-supported pianissimo and surprising strength when she needs it. She sang and acted with clarity and an affecting directness, which is, of course, the only way that poor Liu can be effective on stage.

Cvilak was helped by Şerban’s intimate staging. All too often Liu is lost in the crowd—her music is filled with plaintive cries to be heard (“…ascolta,” “…ascoltami”)—but not this time. And for once, Liu got some respect. Not just from the audience, which rewarded Cvilak with a well-deserved standing ovation, but from Turandot as well. Maria Guleghina’s Ice Princess seemed genuinely affected in the last act by Liu’s demonstration of love and self-sacrifice.

Without this lesson in love, delivered by the hapless little songbird, Turandot’s conversion and return to humanity makes very little sense. Liu was Puccini’s own invention, apparently fused from two minor characters who appear as slaves in Carlo Gozzi’s 1762 theater piece, the distant, original inspiration for the libretto. Puccini began his work with Liu’s Act III scene, perhaps well aware of this important moral fulcrum in an otherwise chilling and bizarre depiction of sexual frigidity married to narcissism.

Most productions of Turandot are doomed before they even begin, as producers and opera companies compete in an impossible arms race of stage spectacle. There’s no hope of winning, of course, especially with productions such as Franco Zeffirelli’s colossus at the Met—the H-bomb of Turandots—already familiar to most operas lovers. The advantage of Şerban’s approach is that it not only lets him achieve intimacy, it scales down the lavishness of the affair to reasonable proportions.

Fortunately, Şerban’s downsizing rarely disappoints, perhaps because the real dimensions of this piece are musical, and the music is heard in all its over sized glory. Which is why you need a soprano such as Maria Guleghina to sing the title role. Guleghina is a very hard worker, and she’s been a busy bee at the Met recently. But you never quite know what you’re going to get. As Abigaille, in Verdi’s Nabucco four years ago, she gave a wild, disjointed and often very shrill performance. Earlier this season, in the title role of Adriana Lecouvreur, she sounded much better, and the natural heft of the voice seemed at home in the later, heavier style of Cilea.

On Saturday, she demonstrated her usual power, and often some very affecting, more modestly scaled singing that had genuine warmth. But she seemed to be working hard to support the voice, even to the point of taking distracting breaths which broke up the line. Her acting is borrowed straight from the good old days of grand divas with crazy energy, laser-like death stares and hauteur to burn. At the end of the evening it’s clear why Guleghina seems to be everywhere today. It may not be pretty, but she gets the job done.

If tenor Darío Volonté, as Calaf, could have scaled Puccini’s music down to fit the scale of Şerban’s production, he would have been a happier singer. Volonté’s voice never cracked or wavered, but it was often lost in the din. His “Nessun dorma,” demonstrated the simplicity and forthrightness of a tenor well versed in Verdi. Volonté lacks the pure vulgar bigness necessary for Calaf, and that may not be a bad thing. As long as he doesn’t sing Calaf.

Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson might have done a little more to help him, but you can’t rejigger the sonic landscape too much (especially with smaller characters, such as Timur, sung by large-voiced singers, such as Morris Robinson). The orchestra, especially the brass, sounded sumptuous and well rehearsed, but there were problems keeping the chorus and orchestra together in ensemble passage. At least twice it seemed like things were slipping away from Wilson. But she deserves credit for clarifying the orchestral texture and drawing out some of Puccini’s delicate and easily lost refinements.

The production continues through June 4, but the sign of a man at the box office with a paper sign begging to purchase anything available isn’t a good sign for opera lovers who have purchased seats in advance. There is, however, a concert performance of the opera just added to the schedule, to be heard in Baltimore’s Lyric Opera House on June 2. Placido Domingo will conduct. This not only brings succor to a city cruelly deprived of a major opera company (a victim of the recession), it will test the validity of my comments about Şerban, above.

Soprano Sabina Cvilak, photograph by Marjan Laznik

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Filed under Culture, Music, Opera

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