Conductor: Keri-Lynn Wilson
Princess Turandot: Maria Guleghina
Calaf: Dario Volonte
Liu: Sabina Cvilak
Timur: Morris Robinson
The Washington National Opera is currently concluding its season with Puccini's last work, the Oriental-flavored Turandot, courtesy of a production that was created at London's Covent Garden 25 years ago and has been revived no less than 22 times since. Assuming it must be doing something right, I was looking forward to checking it out, but with cautious enthusiasm as the opera's unavoidable pomp and contrite story have never made a favorite of mine among my beloved Puccini's oeuvre. There is no doubt, however, that the music remains as stunningly harmonious as ever, at least until he died and Alfano eventually carried on, and there is no better recipe for escapism in Washington these days, especially on a hot three-day Memorial Day weekend.
The story originally does not seem more far-fetched than most operas, albeit a bit on the bloody side. It's not every day that you hear of a princess who had all of her twenty-six suitors beheaded for failing to solve three riddles, and is ready for more. Therefore, Turandot appears as a pretty unsavory, almost cartoonish, character until the very end. While her beauty (and the throne of China that comes with her) are apparently bewitching, it is still pretty hard to understand Calaf's irresistible attraction to her, especially after she callously provokes the suicide of Liu, the slave-with-the-golden-heart who was just too good for that rowdy crowd. Love may be blind, but my philosophy regarding that trio from hell has always been very simple: Kill the bitch, or at least get her a good therapist quickly, for Christ's sake.
Narrative issues aside, Turandot is also well-known as the perfect excuse for art directors to go crazy, and this production did turn out to be spectacularly, if rather tastefully, over-the-top. It sure got pretty busy on that cluttered stage, with the soberly dressed chorus smartly confined to balconies, the glittery dancers artfully evoking China's exotic culture, the commedia dell'arte-inspired Ping-Pang-Pong trio jumping around, and all the main characters constantly bustling around, usually accompanied by their entourage.
The costumes were brightly exotic and displayed a wide-range of styles and colors, vividly contributing to the visual feast. The decor was not Zeffirelli-extravagant, but the set designer had not exactly held back either. However, amidst the exuberant chaos, a few moments were particularly breath-taking, such as the subdued light coming from the moving Chinese lanterns at the beginning of the Act 3, or the harsh red luminosity suddenly bathing the whole stage right after Liu cut her own throat.
As the title role, Maria Guleghina certainly proved she could deliver wall-shaking power and subtle nuances, the former being much more obvious than the latter. She was not afraid to dig scarily deep into Turandot's icy personality, much less inclined to strike the graceful poses that were also part of the deal. As her extremely determined suitor, Dario Volonte fared much less satisfactorily. His voice was often dull and had difficulties rising above the orchestra, making it challenging for his Calaf to sound up to his mission impossible. Even the stop-the-press aria "Nessun dorma" was adequate, but not transporting. As ill-fated Liu, Sabina Cvilak was easily the star of the production, her young and vibrant notes luminously soaring and perfectly matching her tiny, innocent and strong-willed character. After winning the WNO's audience last year as a heart-breaking Mimi, this lovely Slovenian soprano has demonstrated once again that she possesses a wonderful instrument and knows how to use it. Completing this uneven cast, Morris Robinson was a dignified Timur, his big voice going all over his impressive bass register.
The orchestra was aptly, if not originally, conducted by opera and symphony maestra Keri-Lynn Wilson, and Puccini's trademark superb melodies and dramatic climaxes came alive without too much trouble. She also smartly inserted a barely perceptible pause in Act 3 to signal the end of the original score. This was a commendable move, and thankfully not as grandiose as Toscanini's when, during the premiere of Turandot at La Scala, he stopped conducting, turned to the audience and said: "At this point the maestro laid down his pen", effectively ending the performance.
Let's leave aside the cheesy, controversial, several times revised and still not quite successful ending, and acknowledge this production as a success. Even if the plot is, as the teenager behind me implacably assessed at the end of Act 1, "dumb" (and to think he hadn't gone through the other two acts yet), the appeal of the last Italian opera to hold the international stage still operates, turning it into the fitting conclusion of a pretty good season.