Chinese Mythology: Love melts the ice Princess


Promoted with the line “Provoke the Passion within Opera Philadelphia”, the Fall season of Opera Philadelphia starts strong, with Turandot, a co-production with the Minnesota Opera, Cincinnati Opera, Pittsburg Opera, Utah Opera and Seattle Opera. Turandot offers great soloists, a full chorus, supernumeraries and ballet on a traditional stage set. The program quotes stage Director Renaut Doucet and the Stage and Costumes Designer André Barbe: “[O]ur Turandot [is] inspired by the myths of China’s Hmong minority, which tells how all creatures, including humans, are descended from a Butterfly mother.” He refers to the princess Turandot’s costume, the sleeves of which can be opened like the wings of a butterfly, but inside we can see the skulls of those who died trying to conquer the princess by answering her riddles to win her hand. Indeed, the staging and costumes, like the Chinese myth, follows a pattern of numbers and shapes. The circular motif prevalent in the sets and costumes represents the idea of transformation in the cycle of life and death. The large circular gong that appears on stage is rung three times when a person has just died. The number three “represents heaven, earth, and man as well as the three stages of a man’s life: birth, marriage and death.” We meet the three comic characters: Ping, Pong and Pang, who are the advisor, the provider and the cook. The auspicious number six in Mandarin is pronounced “liu”, also the name of a central lovelorn character, and represents the blessing and happiness which could have been Calaf’s had he accepted Liu instead vainly pursuing his love for Turandot. The eight scholars who know Turandot’s riddles and pronounce the fortune of Calaf when he correctly answers the three riddles, align with the mystical number eight, associated with prosperity and fortune. Chinese mythology describes humanistic personal growth as most important, and the princess Turandot finally recognizes that Calaf as her love and chooses him over death and anger.

Other program notes come from Bi Jean Ngo, director of Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists, a collective of theatre artists who seek to enhance and strengthen the presence of Asian Americans in the Philadelphia theatre community. She asks us to remember that though Turandot is a period piece, we can try to understand it with modern eyes. Though Puccini conceived Turandot as commedia dellarte in a fictitious China, using stereotypical exaggerated gestures and clown-like masks to present stories to the masses, it metaphorically portrayed the Italy of the day and can be related to our understandings today. The point of view of the female characters of Liu and Turandot are very notable as representative of the range of people in our society. Turandot is sadistic, executing men out of a desire for revenge. Liu is masochistic, sacrificing her life for unrequited love. Turandot is finally overcome by the love of a man and Liu commits suicide for the same man. In the both situations, the man always overcomes, domineering over the woman’s situation, whether she is a dragon or a delicate flower.  

The opera starts colored bloody in red. People appear oppressed. This reflects the hardness and repressive imperialist regime of the emperor Altoum and his daughter the princess Turandot. Frames with death’s heads in white plaster appear crossing the stage. A semicircular structure with walls of stone surrounds an interior circle where the emperor of China sits. The second act maintains the semicircular structure but now it represents a dining room with enormous decorations featuring motifs from nature such as the sea, fish, trees and a house, situating us in a calm and relaxed atmosphere.

The chorus in the first acts sounds a little too thin, and could have a rounder more fleshy tone. Puccini’s music demands resonance and depth. However, in the last act the chorus comes magnificently to life in the pianissimo passages, but in the forte passages we miss the more Italian vocal technique and projection. Marco Berti, makes an excellent Calaf in this production. His voice is wonderful, his high notes and the squillo of the voice is magnificent, his diction clear, and as the production proceeded, his quality, color, line and power seemed to increase. Christine Goerke as Turandot has a great voice, perhaps a bit too focused on the lower passages, at some sacrifice to the quality of her higher notes which come out a little thin and narrow. However, her intonation and projections are both very fine, with a kind of style of technique employed by the kind of American dramatic singers often working as mezzo-sopranos. Joyce El-Khoury, as Liù, shows us the perfection of a lyric soprano, with an equally balanced register actoss the vocal line and with very well-resolved and beautiful pianos, all enhanced by excellent acting. But ultimately her perfection comes off a little too cold for the uncontainable emotion of the music of Puccini. Morris Robinson performs Timor.  He demonstrates a bass with a giant register, where his lower passages are powerfully dark, while his high notes have a bright and beautiful timbre. His voice is mysterious – his ample register allows him to sound like a sort of bass-baritone. Daniel Belcher as Ping gave magnificent performance as Ping. Likewise, Julius Ahn as Pang and Joseph Gaines a Pong: excellent in both voice and acting. Also excellent – Jonathan Mccullough as the Mandarin, Toffer Mihalka as the emperor Altoum, and a big bravo to George Ross, as Calaf, the prince of Persia. At the final curtain, Turandot received a very warm reception from the Philadelphia public.



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