Opera Australia’s ‘Turandot’. Production photography by Keith Sanders

This was a wonderful opening night of Giacomo Puccini’s ‘Turandot’ performed by Opera Australia at Sydney’s Opera House on Tuesday 15th January 2019. TURANDOT is Puccini’s final opera and one of his most well-known thanks to the unforgettable performance of the aria ‘Nessun Dorma’ by tenor Luciano Pavarotti. Considered by many as Puccini’s most musically adventurous and best known Opera. Sadly Puccini (born 1858) died in 1924 before it was completed. TURANDOT premiered on the 25th April 1926 at La Scala in Milan with the final scenes written by composer Franco Alfano, a successful opera composer in his own right, based the final ending on Puccini’s drafts and sketches.

This year’s revival of Graeme Murphy’s 1990 production leans heavily into the fairy tale and Puccini’s view of early 20th century China which he developed from studying books about old Chinese music and information from his friend who had been the Italian Consul in China at the time.

As in 1990 Opera Australia’s 2019 production is still a visually stunning one with a fabulous set and costumes designed by the late Kristian Fredrickson (he passed away in 2005). It transports us beautifully to an ancient and fantasy China. Dramatic yet delicate lighting by John Drummond Montgomery also makes an impact. Thanks to revival director Kim Walker this production maintains Murphy’s original charm and is a visually arresting production capturing the beauty of the exotic world that Puccini was striving for. The choreography throughout is superb.

The music in the expert hands of conductor Christian Badea is sweeping and uplifting capturing the genius of Puccini who centred his music with stories about ordinary people though he struggled terribly with the ending.

This night’s performance was beautifully performed by the American soprano Amber Wagner’   as Turandot and Calaf was performed by Spanish born tenor ‘Andeka Gorrotxategi’. From 20th February TURANDOT is performed by Dragana Radakovic.

The Opera is based on a Persian tale called ‘Turan – Dokht’ itself about 1000 years old and also based on the 1762 commedia dell’arte play written by Carlo Gozzi. It is a fantasy opera of poetry and myth set in a world where fear and love go hand in hand and death is always around the corner for those brave enough to take up Princess Turandot’s 3 riddle challenge.

Turandot poses 3 riddles to each prince who wishes to win her. Anyone who fails to answer correctly is executed. Prince Calaf risks all to win the love of the ice cold Turandot by answering all 3 riddles correctly which totally shatters her. In Act 3 scene 3 she cries out “Mai nessun m’avrà! Or “No one will ever possess me!”. Calaf declares that he is willing to die if Turandot finds out his name by dawn. And so the plot unfolds to music of heartfelt brilliance and such beautiful melodies including the much awaited and most popular of Italian tenor arias “Nessun dorma,” in Act 3.

It is well known that Puccini struggled terribly with the ending of the story considered problematic by many; even after Turandot tortures Calaf’s friend Liu (who kills herself) Calaf still wants to be with Turandot. Even by Italian Opera standards the ending is hard to believe when Turandot has a sudden profound change of heart after Calaf kisses her which sent jitters of laughter in the audience

In Puccini’s words “I did my best with it and the final duet will be the triumph of love over cruelty and death”.

The libretto even with its troubled ending (not written by Puccini) is pure poetry which may surprise some. I am an Italian born native speaker and have re-read the libretto in its original Italian for purposes of this review. I can attest that it is truly magical and poetic writing in Italian. So much is lost in translation and I am often frustrated by the poor and unsatisfactory pronunciation of the words in Italian when sung by non-native speakers to the language they are singing in. This often results in the ‘sung’ words being unrecognisable to those of us who are fluent in the original language that the Opera is written in and results in a less than authentic performance.

In terms of music this opera is about the chorus. Opera Australia Chorus directed by chorus master Anthony Hunt supported by the Sydney’s Children’s Choir were strong and enthralling. Both delivered outstanding memorable performances and clearly are one of Opera Australia’s greatest strengths. They beautifully recreated the bloodthirsty crowd moving and flowing in wave like patterns in Act 1 and the choreography was superb in all Acts. The children’s choir’s articulation and clear diction of words sung in Italian especially when they sang their folk song was an absolute knockout.

Wonderful playing of Puccini’s complex score by Opera Australia Orchestra under conductor Christian Badea. A large percussion section including 13 Chinese gongs in the pit and a giant gong on stage provided a rich palate of musical colour and wonderful accompaniment to chorus and soloists.

Returning to Australia after her debut role as ‘Aida’ for Opera Australia last year is American soprano Amber Wagner as ‘Turandot’ in a role that demands infamous amounts of vocal stamina and technical brilliance. She delivers a powerful voluptuous vocal performance depicting a fearsome icy princess. Though Turandot doesn’t actually sing until Act 2 scene 2 Wagner’s vocal capacity cannot be questioned especially when posing the three riddles in her daringly high aria ‘In Questa Reggia’. This was beautifully sung and sparkled with tonal musical precision especially when hitting the high notes though the clarity of the words sung in Italian could have been better articulated. Wagner’s vocal performance was overall compelling but her physical mannerisms and lack of on-stage chemistry with Gorrotxategi left a little something to be desired.

Spanish Tenor Andeka Gorrotxategi sang Calaf with a smooth warm colour and tone but at times he lacked volume. He provided a youthful naturalness to Calaf which was pleasing. Sadly he could not always be heard above the Orchestra in Act 1 (possibly due to opening night nerves). He delivered a more confident pronounced performance in Act 2 and 3. His ‘Nessun Dorma’ demonstrated improved strength in his upper register but at times this felt pushed and thankfully he well achieved the high B ornament note that that aria is famously known for.

Korean soprano and Opera Australia regular Mariana Hong’s as Liù was a clear audience favourite. Her performance was emotive and expressive and provided a lovely contrast to the fierceness of Turandot’s character. Her crucial final dying scene at the end made one’s hair stand on end and was beautifully delivered. Her articulation and singing in Italian could be improved making the words a lot more audibly recognisable and accurate. In fairness this applies to a number of cast members in this performance which could be improved with more rigorous foreign language training focusing on correct pronunciation.

Most enjoyable on the night was the memorable combination of the comical satirical trio Ping, Lord Chancellor(Christopher Hillier), Pang, Majordomo (Virgilio Marino) and Pong, Head Chef (John Longmuir). They provided light-heartedness and comic relief in Acts 1 and 2. Their inventive dancing and entertaining choreography whilst maintaining clear vocal diction (lovely singing in Italian) was a standout.

Overall this almost 30 year’s revival is still a strong and an enthralling production not to be missed.

TURANDOT plays at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House from January 24th 2019 to March 30th 2019.