Turandot: Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquarie’s Point, March 24

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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.

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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).

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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

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The Force of Destiny: review

Opera Australia, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 29

 

Svetla Vassileva as Leonora. Photo: Prudence Upton

Svetla Vassileva as Leonora. Photo: Prudence Upton

Death stalks Verdi’s dark, doom-laden, four-act opera The Force of Destiny (La forza del destino) as does the hand of fate – here made visible through the figure of the fortune-teller Preziosilla.

It’s an imaginative and effective device by director Tama Matheson, who has Preziosilla haunting the three central characters – Leonora, Don Alvaro and Don Carlo. Forever watching them, she intervenes at times, notably at the pivotal moment of Alvaro and Leonora’s elopement when she pushes Don Alvaro’s hand so that he accidentally shoots and kills Leonora’s father, setting the tragedy in motion.

Set in 18th century Spain and Italy during the Wars of the Austrian Succession, Verdi tells the story of forbidden love and honour killing against a background of war, also interweaving themes of religion and sex.

The love between Don Alvaro (son of a Spanish father and Peruvian princess) and Leonora only blossoms briefly. Separated when they elope, each believes the other dead for most of the opera. They don’t meet again until the tragic finale when – restoring Verdi’s original ending – Don Alvaro, Leonora and her avenging brother Don Carlo all die.

Matheson and designer Mark Thompson have created a mostly magnificent, visually dark production to match the bleak spirit of Verdi’s opera. On a black stage with tapestry-like backcloths, huge icons are used to create bold stage images.

It opens with a giant, gleaming skull and Preziosilla and the chorus holding similar masks as if at an underworld masked ball.

There’s also an enormous Madonna symbolising the monastery, the hermit’s cave where Leonora takes sanctuary for eight, lonely years, and various staircases and platforms around them.

In the first two acts, some of the scene changes feel a little clunky as things are moved around, notably the Madonna, which wobbles slightly as it is wheeled forwards. The massive scale and gaudiness of the religious statue also feels a bit overdone, representing as it does a small, out-of-the-way monastery.

In another scene, it takes ages for rows of candles to be pushed into place – though it looks beautiful when they are finally set.

But from there on, the production moves seamlessly and the distraction of earlier scene changes dissipates. Overall, however, the staging is marvellous, creating a visceral, dramatic environment seething with foreboding, enhanced by Nigel Levings’ gloomy lighting.

The final image of blood pouring from the crucified Christ’s side onto the giant skull below, flanked by walls of skeletons, is a resonantly powerful, disturbing one.

Thompson’s richly detailed, period costumes add flashes of colour to the darkness, in particular Preziosilla’s red, gold and black dress with its layers of lace and netting.

There’s a striking moment in the first act when Leonora’s maid helps her out of an ornate gown with enormous pannier into simple clothes for the elopement – which speaks reams about the power and status of clothing.

Heavy, dark eye make-up for many of the performers adds to the sense of the characters being haunted and doomed.

 

Jonathan Summers, Rinat Shaham and Riccardo Massi. Photo: Prudence Upton

Jonathan Summers, Rinat Shaham and Riccardo Massi. Photo: Prudence Upton

The casting is splendid. As Don Alvaro, Riccardo Massi appears slightly awkward to begin with but once he warms up sings with stirring passion and an effortless, soaring beauty.

Svetla Vassileva is radiant as Leonora, with a rich, clear, agile soprano, while her acting is equally expressive and poignant.

Jonathan Summers uses his dark baritone to convincingly portray Don Carlo, Leonora’s unlikable brother who is hell-bent on revenge, believing that his sister has dishonoured their family.

There are also vivid performances by Rinat Shaham as the gypsy Preziosilla, Warwick Fyfe as the grouchy, impatient Franciscan Fra Melitone, who resents dispensing charity to the poor, Richard Anderson as Leonora’s father the Marchese di Calatrava, Giacomo Prestia as the generous Padre Guardiano and Kanen Breen as a pedlar.

Andrea Licata conducts the orchestra with a spirited sense of urgency.

The Force of Destiny is a long opera, running three and a half hours with two intervals, but this powerful, new production keeps you in its grip and lingers in the mind.

The Force of Destiny runs until July 23.