Turandot: Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquarie’s Point, March 24

Turandotdancers

Riccardo Massi and Dragana Radakovic. Photo: Prudence Upton

Spectacle is a pre-requisite for Opera Australia’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour – and Turandot doesn’t disappoint, offering plenty of visual thrills without resorting to tacky glitziness. Nor does it ever feel that the stage is full of colour and movement just for the sake of it.

What’s more, with Dragana Radakovic as Turandot and Riccardo Massi as Calaf, the production is led by principal singers who are able to command the huge space with their magnetic presence and powerhouse vocals.

 Set in a fantasy China, Puccini’s final (and unfinished) opera tells a barbaric tale. Turandot, the ice-cold princess, demands that her suitors are beheaded if they fail to answer three riddles. The score includes many glorious melodies (some of which draw on Chinese tunes) and, of course, the well-known aria Nessun dorma.

Given the one-dimensional stereotyping of Asian women in Turandot and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Chinese-born New York-based director Chen Shi-Zheng has knocked back many offers to direct both operas, but allowed himself to be talked into it now by OA artistic director Lyndon Terracini.

In interviews, Chen has said that he aims to present Princess Turandot as a more complex and believably human figure, while also seeing her as an embodiment of China with its centuries-old suspicion of the West.

Whether he achieves that is debatable. Despite a superb performance from Radakovic, Turandot (who explains in an Act II aria why she hates the foreign princes who come to woo her) doesn’t really come across as any more nuanced a character than usual.

Be that as it may, Chen’s production tells the story with great clarity. He uses the vast stage well and is adept at ensuring the focus is where it needs to be.

TurandotDragon

The Turandot set with fire-breathing dragon. Photo: Prudence Upton

Dan Potra’s design is dominated by two major set pieces. On one side there is a giant, fire-breathing dragon whose tail suggests the Great Wall of China onto which images are projected. There’s also a towering pagoda studded with sharp spikes resembling dragon scales, from where Turandot looks down on the world below. The tower has a (wobbly) drawbridge on which she gradually descends with each riddle that Calaf guesses correctly.

The dragon imagery extends to Turandot’s gorgeous, shimmering silvery white and blue gown. Potra’s costuming makes clever use of colour, pattern and sparkle without over-doing it, while Scott Zielinski’s dramatic, coloured lighting creates many stunning effects. The one design element that looks odd is the Emperor’s throne, which moves through the air on a crane like a gigantic flying sofa.

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour is now in its fifth year and fireworks have become an expected feature. Turandot doesn’t offer many obvious moments for their inclusion so they explode after Nessun dorma. It’s not ideal but given the audience’s rapturous response to that most famous of arias it works OK, though keeping them to the end might have been better.

Chen has also done the choreography, which draws on martial arts for the guards, while Turandot’s female attendants glide around the stage, sending their billowing sleeves flying through the air. As with his direction, the movement serves the story and production beautifully.

Radakovic, a Serbian dramatic soprano, is an impressive, imperious Turandot with an exciting, powerful voice that has a glinting, steely quality at times, which suits the character.

Massi is magnificent as Calaf. The Italian tenor is a tall man, giving him a commanding, heroic presence. He exudes enormous charisma and warmth, matched by his beautiful, rich, burnished voice. In a sensitive rendition of Nessun dorma he builds the aria perfectly, bringing the house down as he soars to the climactic top B.

(The production features two alternating casts, with Daria Masiero as Turandot and Arnold Rawls as Calaf heading the other).

TurandotLiu

Hyeseoung Kwon as Liu. Photo: Prudence Upton

Liu, the slave girl who secretly loves Calaf, is at the emotional heart of the opera. Hyeseoung Kwon who has sung the role previously for OA is heartbreaking. She sings with a moving lyricism, while portraying the character with more strength and resolve than is often the case. Her torture has you wincing and her suicide is very moving.

There is terrific work from Luke Gabbedy, Benjamin Rasheed and John Longmuir as the comic courtiers Ping, Pang and Pong who have plenty of choreography to negotiate while singing. Conal Coad as the blind Timur, David Lewis as the Emperor and Gennadi Dubinsky as the Mandarin all offer strong support, while the chorus is marvellous.

The Australian and Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Brian Castles-Onion, gives a fine account of the score and while you are always aware of the amplification, Tony David Cray’s sound design is clear.

With its combination of spectacle, clear story-telling and superb singing, Turandot should appeal to both regular opera-goers and newcomers. Having Chinese as well as English surtitles is also an astute move as OA seeks to broaden the audience for what has become a key event on Sydney’s arts calendar.

Turandot: Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquarie’s Point; until April 24. Bookings: 02 9318 8200, opera.org.au/Harbour

 A version of this review ran online for Daily Telegraph Arts

Advertisements

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: Aida

Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquarie’s Point, March 27

Milijana Nikolic and Latonia Moore. Photo: Prudence Upton

Milijana Nikolic and Latonia Moore. Photo: Prudence Upton

The giant, crumbling head of Queen Nefertiti dominating the stage for this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: Aida looks genuinely spectacular in its stunning location and is used to great effect, with a particularly striking image at the end of the production. But with the rest of the spectacle feeling decidedly ad hoc, the opening night of Aida well and truly belonged to American soprano Latonia Moore in the title role.

For its fourth harbour outing, Opera Australia has chosen Verdi’s Aida, which combines lavish spectacle with an intimate love triangle between Egyptian military commander Radames, Ethiopian slave Aida (later revealed to be a Princess) and the jealous Princess Amneris, daughter of the Pharoah.

In the first part, it’s spectacle all the way as director Gale Edwards and designer Mark Thompson fill the stage with ceremonial pomp and bucket-loads of glitz.

The costuming mixes styles and eras (“a world caught between times” says the program): men in contemporary suits and others in Fascist military uniforms, ornately clad priests looking straight out of ancient Egypt, OTT golden gowns for the Egyptian women (dubbed the Kardashian chorus by the cast) in which the singers look rather awkward, and vibrantly coloured, boldly patterned fabrics for the Ethiopians.

There doesn’t seem to be any coherent vision behind it; instead it just looks like a lot of disparate visual elements. Worse, the camp costumes for the dancers look oddly out of place, even crass. There are space age storm troopers in Latex (or some such fabric) with helmets and jackboots who would be right at home in the Mardi Gras parade, can-can girls (yes, really) and ceremonial male dancers whose tight black outfits with chains shout bondage. Apparently they’re jackals, though I couldn’t pick that from my seat near the back. Dancing with golden-clad ballet dancers, it is a low point of the production. Lucas Jervies’ clichéd choreography doesn’t help.

The Aida stage is dominated by a giant head of Queen Nefertiti. Photo: Hamilton Lund

The Aida stage is dominated by a giant head of Queen Nefertiti. Photo: Hamilton Lund

It’s true that the positioning of the priests and soldiers around the stage frequently looks dazzling under Matt Scott’s highly dramatic, coloured lighting, but then a distracting gaudy or camp element will intrude, undercutting the effect.

Oil drums stacked at the back of the stage suggest wealth built on petrol – though this isn’t true of Egypt – but nothing more is done with them. Edwards also includes rows of black coffins, which are set out on stage, each with a single lily on them, in the famous Triumphal March. It’s a powerful image alongside the spoils of war and the spectacle of four camels and fireworks, but the politics of the piece don’t reverberate anywhere near as strongly as promised in pre-publicity.

At the same time, any sense of genuine human intimacy is lost in the first half of the production with Amneris, Aida and Radames frequently singing to each other across acres of stage.

After interval, when things quieten and human emotion is allowed to shine through, the production is much more successful. A stronger, clearer focus on the leading characters, positioned close together centrestage, opens the way for us to engage emotionally.

Even then there is a strange piece of staging when a metal mesh frame rises from the front of the stage (creating sight line issues) and then lowers again later. I think it was meant to suggest the opening and closing of the vault in which Radames is buried alive. However, there is no sense whatsoever of he and Aida being sealed in a dark tomb.

Fortunately Latonia Moore is superb. Singing with great beauty and warmth across her range from a rich, strong bottom register to a glowing top, her gorgeous voice outshines the spectacle. Acting with great conviction, she brings real heart to the production.

As Amneris, Serbian-born mezzo-soprano Milijana Nikolic gives a compelling, passionate performance, convincingly moving from imperiousness to heartfelt, bitter regret.

Walter Fraccaro is less persuasive as Radames. He sings with power but little expressiveness, while his voice showed a tendency to wobble on opening night. Acting-wise he has little charisma and next to no chemistry with Moore.

Among the rest of the cast, Michael Honeyman as Amonasro and David Parkin as Ramphis are particularly impressive.

There are two alternating casts with Daria Masiero, Arnold Rawls, Jacqueline Dark and Warwick Fyfe leading the other.

The spectacle of Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

The spectacle of Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

Verdi’s music is glorious, of course, and the orchestra led by Brian Castles-Onion does it justice, while the sound, though muddy at times, is overall reasonably good.

The production is worth seeing if just for Latonia Moore and the Queen Nefertiti set piece. Some of the staging is undeniably spectacular, but compared to last year’s brilliant, hard-hitting, contemporary production of Madama Butterfly, staged by members of Spanish theatre company La Fura dels Baus, Aida is rather disappointing.

Aida runs until April 26

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 29