Opera Review – Canadian Opera Company/Turandot by Giacomo Puccini

Photo by Michael Cooper

The Canadian Opera Company finally has a Robert Wilson production in its repertoire although it took a co-pro with three other companies to pull it off. Why is this important? Because American-born Wilson is one of the most revered men of theatre in the world. For this new production of Puccini’s Turandot, Wilson is responsible for the direction, set and lighting. As an auteur visionary, however, he does incite controversy, which is why this Turandot is magnificent, bewildering, and aggravating, all at the same time.

With a Wilson review, one tends to concentrate on the production values, so let me declare at the outset that musically, this Turandot is simply superb. I’ll talk more about that at the end of the piece.

As the program notes tell us, Wilson’s “experimental style is formalized and abstract, with hypnotic, slow-motion gestures, minimalist set design and striking colour palettes”. What this translates into, is a stage picture that is both symbolic and expressionist. Wilson burrows beneath the words and the music to expose the heart of the opera without pandering to the obvious emotion. He intends to give us substance, not melodrama.

Photo by Michael Cooper

From a magnificent point of view, every moment of the opera is a gorgeous still picture. With its intricate play of light and shadow, and its abrupt chards of shifting colour that rupture the darkness, the visual images are wonderfully distinct and clear. It’s as if Wilson and video artist Tomek Jeziorski are working in ultra high definition. Costume designer Jacques Reynaud has provided the sharply contrasted colours of the stylized Chinoiserie, red for Turandot, off-white for Calaf, Liù, Timur and the Emperor, and black for everyone else. While the shape of the clothes evoke ancient China, the court ministers Ping, Pang and Pong are in modern suits. They stand out amid the crowd, as they should.

Wilson always has visual surprises. Turandot first appears on a high platform that rolls slowly out into space from the wings. It is a gasp-inducing moment because it looks so narrow, and one fervently hopes that the soprano is well-anchored. Wilson, however, should have had her sing “In questa reggia” from high up, rather than bringing her down to ground level for that famous aria. She did, however, roll out on a moving walkway, which made her seem floaty and ethereal. Similarly, Emperor Altoum’s celestial throne is abruptly dropped down into the middle of the space above the stage, catching us by surprise (with the singer looking a might nervous).

On the down side, the stage picture is static. There is very little movement. Everyone, except for the Three Ps, is always facing the front in a line, so you do start to wonder if the opera companies could have saved millions of dollars and just had the singers behind music stands. The static nature also has the potential for a disconnect between the visual picture and the emotion of the music.

Photo by Michael Cooper

As for bewildering, Calaf should complain to the tenors’ union. This is the man who has awakened the humanity in Turandot, yet at the end of the opera, his spotlight suddenly cuts out. You hear his disembodied voice for his last couple of lines, and then, oblivion. All the light is reserved for Turandot. I can understand Wilson’s symbolic thinking – after all, Turandot dominates everything – but losing Calaf is questionable.

As well, Wilson’s highly choreographed gestural language dominates the stage picture, so, after a time, the in–sync stage action makes one think of a 1980s boy band or a 1960s doo-wop group. Some of these gestures are inexplicable, such as during Calaf’s “Nessun dorma”, when his arms are whirling in front of him like lawnmower blades whenever he sings “Vincerò”. A few of these stylized gestures really do work, however. The famous kiss has Calaf touching his lips and sending his fingers in Turandot’s direction, followed by her sudden body contraction. Or Liù’s torture where the guards hit her in the stomach, causing her body to arch backwards, her arms raised up in the air. Both make for strong visual pictures. Nonetheless, when poor Timur begs Liù to stand up, and she’s already standing….

Wilson also paints the faces of his lead characters so they are white and expressionless to draw the audience’s eye, courtesy of make-up designer Manu Halligan. His theory is, as he explains in his notes, that “with a smile, a grimace, a glance, the audience can grasp something about the characters”. This is all well and good, but I’m sure a good chunk of the audience can’t make out details in faces unless they have opera glasses.

Photo by Michael Cooper

Aggravating is Wilson’s representation of Ping, Pang and Pong. Asian actor Richard Lee was hired to be production consultant to ensure cultural awareness, but something has gone very wrong. In his notes, Wilson states that Puccini’s made-up names for the Three Ps are offensive, so he opts to call them Jim, Bob and Bill, which is just plain nuts. This trio is the only group that has any concrete movement. Their restless energy carries them around the stage as they sing their satiric commentary on the doings in court dictated by the intractable Turandot. They alone are not trapped in the static stage picture, which is a good idea – except for one thing – their choreography. Here’s my question to Wilson (and Lee). What is more offensive, calling them Ping, Pang and Pong, or giving them bizarre frog jumps and a silly faux Charlie Chaplin walk? In fact, their movement pattern would fit right in with what the comical frog footmen execute in the National Ballet’s production of Alice in Wonderland. I found their fussbudget choreography offensive. I did not see them as commedia dell’arte clowns.

Which brings us to the music which is truly magnificent. Italian conductor Carlo Rizzi brings out all the lush richness of the score, fulfilling Wilson’s desire that the music carry the emotion rather than putting mawkish drama on stage. In fact, Rizzi’s conducing is spine-tingling. Tamara Wilson (Turandot) displays that thrilling soprano, strong but never shrill, that we have come to love with her frequent visits to the COC. We want Turandot to give us goosebumps, and she passes the test. Russian tenor Sergey Skorokhodov (Calaf) has an ease of high notes and a surprising old-fashioned Italian sob. He has a beautiful sound and a big sing.

Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury (Liù) continues to shine with every COC appearance, particularly her ability to bring her lovely voice back to almost a breath that shimmers in the air. It is good to see the return of American bass David Leigh (Timur) with his hearty, rolling notes that so impressed in Hadrian last year. Moldovan baritone Adrian Timpau (Ping), who leads American tenors Julius Ahn (Pang) and Joseph Hu (Pong), catches the ear with his robust voice. All three sing well together, and all are able to pull off the extreme physicality set on them by Wilson. Usually Emperor Altoum is performed by a character tenor with a pinched sound but English tenor

Adrian Thompson has a surprisingly strong voice. Canadian Joel Allison (Mandarin) displays an attractive bass-baritone in his small role.

And let us not forget the COC chorus under Sandra Horst who adds to the magnificence of the music. The ensemble is simply outstanding in evenness and control, whether producing a big sound or small. They represent gorgeous, ringing, stirring choral music at its best. Kudos also to the offstage voices of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company with their lovely rendering of the Chinese folk song “Mo Li Hua/Jasmine Flower”.

To conclude, anything that Robert Wilson does is worth attention because his work is provocative, even if his vision is not entirely to one’s liking.

Canadian Opera Company, Turandot by Giacomo Puccini, directed by Robert Wilson, conducted by Carlo Rizzi, Four Seasons Centre, Sept. 28 to Oct. 27, 2019.