Edmonton Opera’s Turandot (the final ‘t’ is pronounced) is an exquisite tour de force that is a must see for opera lovers. Flawless singing and symphonic accompaniment transport the audience to ancient China in the orientalist imagination of Giacomo Puccini in the early 20th century, who adapted an 18th century commedia dell’arte play by Carlo Gozzi. The production is stunning in its scope; most scenes feature dozens of cast members on stage in horned headdresses, grotesque masks, and impossible hairstyles against an elaborate multi-levelled set that has the important dramatic effect of keeping princess Turandot and her father the emperor above and aloof from the rest of the action. This production marks the Canadian debut of Canadian-American Soprano Othalie Graham, in the title role of the willful princess Turandot, and she is splendid.
The story is an example of a global folktale type: a marriage contest for the hand of a princess and the inheritance of a kingdom. In some of these stories, the contest has death as the punishment for failure, which correlates to a desire in the princess or her father not to contract the marriage. In Turandot, it is a contest of wits, where the suitors must answer three riddles posed by Turandot, with the penalty of death relating directly to the princess’ desire to remain independent and powerful in her own right, avoiding the fate of other women in her family. Her father Emperor Altoum, wonderfully portrayed in his heavenly glory by tenor Matthew Bruce, is mystified by his daughter and does not understand that her rejection of marriage is a mark of her ambition.
The inaccessibility of the princess is accentuated by her scant and silent appearance in Act 1, which centres on the hero Calaf, the dispossessed prince of Tartary, superbly and vividly portrayed by tenor David Pomeroy. Calaf meets his usurped father Timur, in a rich and absorbing portrayal by Giles Tomkins, among a crowd of unfortunates gathered before the imperial palace in Peking. The crowd serves as the opera’s chorus, responding to the action of the principal characters and modelling the ideal emotional response of the audience. The joy of the reunion of father and son, and of Calaf’s discovery that the slave girl Liu, stunningly portrayed by soprano Michele Capalbo, was responsible for Timur’s survival, is overturned by Calaf’s insistence that he wants to meet the challenge of Turandot. Timur and Liu are two of the most captivating characters in this production, but Pomeroy’s Calaf stole the show with his dramatic presence and powerful voice.
The courtiers Ping (Geoffrey Sirett), Pang (James McLennan), and Pong (Christopher Mayell), playing clownish characters out of commedia dell’arte, hilariously attempt to dissuade Calaf from his reckless course of action and reveal the gruesome fates of other suitors in Acts 1 and 2. Act 2 features the dramatic contest of wits between Turandot, the paradigm of icy haughtiness, and Calaf, the noble and hearty suitor. The riddles that are at the heart of this scene and the Opera stand in exquisite balance with the production as a whole. Before the imperial court, and overseen by a panel of wise men who adjudicate the answers with their authoritative scrolls, Calaf answers correctly three questions posed by Turandot, and each of the answers is something essential to the character of Turandot and to the plot. In the answers to the riddles the audience hears four words that simply and beautifully drive the opera.
With Calaf successful, Act 3 is devoted to Turandot’s decision whether to honour the terms of the contest or not. Puccini died before this act and the final duet between Calaf and Turandot were composed; the opera was completed by Franco Alfano. A change in the character of the music is detectable, but the performance reaches an exalted conclusion with one of the most often heard segments of the Turandot score.
Among many treats for the eyes and ears in this production, the score calls for a children’s choir, who appear as a ghostly procession with beautiful, haunting voices trained by Edmonton’s Cantilon Choirs. They accompany the unsuccessful Prince of Persia on his way to execution in Act 1.
The quality of the set and costumes will amaze Edmonton audiences, a fact the Opera’s general director Tim Yakimec wanted to explain before the show. It was years of fundraising through the Opera’s sustainability fund that allowed them to buy the production from another company. Edmonton Opera’s Turandot will be an important part of the company’s repertoire and legacy in the years to come.