Friday, September 16, 2011

San Francisco Opera, Puccini's Turandot

Sept. 14, 2011

As evolutionary creatures, we respond to sudden changes in sound in a primal fashion – as if that sound might be attached to a creature that might eat us. This is why we are energized, sometimes alarmed, by sudden changes in music, and – once we reassure ourselves that we’re not about to end up in someone’s belly – why we often even enjoy the experience.

In Turandot, Puccini created a sonic rollercoaster of haunting elegies and musical grenades to create a provocative mix of fear and love. This aspect of the composer’s last (and unfinished) work was driven home by San Francisco’s resident dynamo, conductor Nicola Luisotti, and a supercharged orchestra, equipped with enough percussion to open a drum store (for the record: four timpani, triangle, snare drum, funeral drum, cymbals, tam-tam, eleven tuned gongs, glockenspiel, xylophone, marimba and chimes).

Not that the rollercoaster was strictly an audio affair. David Hockney’s 1992 set makes a welcome return, its collison of shocking reds, greens and off-kilter architecture creating an otherworldly Peking. The alien feeling is intensified by the haunting Moon Chorus, sung by the villagers before the arrival of a very busy executioner. (Ian Robertson’s chorus sang assertively and beautifully all evening.) After the execution, with its rousing bursts of brass and the Prince of Persia’s snappy yellow and blue robe (because you only die once), Puccini shifts to absurdist humor in the form of Ping, Pang and Pong, clownish administrators of the Imperial household. Attempting to ridicule our hero, Calaf, out of wooing their deadly princess (“Our graveyards are all full, and we have enough lunatics”), Hyung Yun, Greg Fedderly and Daniel Montenegro perform with such vocal and comic tightness, it’s hard not think of them as s single entity. In Act 2, they follow passages of Rossinian patter with a surprisingly touching andantino, “Ho Una casa nell’Honan”) about the homes they never see.

For sheer emotionality, of course, the opera’s peak moment is Liù’s “Signore, ascolta,” and former SFO Adler Fellow Leah Crocetto does not miss her opportunity. Making her role debut, Crocetto sings with a clarity and directness absolutely reminiscent of Montserrat Caballe. Her final note was a soul-shaking, crystalline dream.

Fear and Love make their appearance in the form of Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin and tenor Marco Berti, who battle it out in the Act 2 riddle scene like a hurricane battling a tornado. In the tradition of tenors with awesome voices, Berti is a little too static in his movements. Theorin begins in the same fashion – especially in Turandot’s fearsome “In questa reggia” – but then, at the answering of the third riddle, reveals a beguiling frailty. This helps later, as Puccini and his “finisher,” the much-debated Franco Alfano, attempt to marry off a serial murderer and a schmuck over the dead body of a devoted servant. (Considering his long history of squeezing effective drama out of his harried librettists, I’m betting that a healthier Puccini would have given the whole thing a massive overhaul.)

Puccini’s fascinating late-life experimentation – the ventures into exotic cultures and 20th century musical trends – tend to distract one from these dramatic flaws. SFO’s lavish production – a cast of 199 performers, a second-act palace that seems to go on forever, rhythmic gymnasts whipping ribboned banners all over the place, and one hell of a headdress – is a pretty amazing show all by itself.

Through Oct. 4, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $21-$389., 415/864-3330. Free simulcast 2 p.m. Sept. 25 at AT&T Ballpark.

Photo by Cory Weaver

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the novel Operaville, available at

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