That is how you Turandot, or, maybe I should say, THAT is how you CALAF, for as much as Lise Lindstrom is amongst the finest Turandots you can hire at the moment (and, yes, she is VERY GOOD) last night's Turandot from opera Australia was very much the show of Calaf. I say that, having seen another very good Calaf in the same production previously (albeit with a less successful Turandot) a few years ago.
But, last night, was special. Very Special. I cannot remember a time when the star imported soprano got a smaller applause than the tenor in a big role. And, when that star imported soprano was singing her career defining role, and singing it very well. But, such was the caliber of the performance, that any of the six big leads in this show (Calaf, Turandot, Liu, Ping, Pang and Pong) would have not been out of place in any cast in any major opera theatre. The fact that four of them are Australian, makes me very pleased.
So, first of all, this was the much loved Graeme Murphy Turandot with the gorgeous designs of the late Kristian Fredrickson. And yes, it is glorious magnificent from start to finish, with both costuming and other fabric used to create mood and beautiful stage pictures (see here). And, yes, this production was created with a great deal of thought, time and care. It was Graeme Murphy's first opera production, and probably will remain his finest, born of a long standing love of this opera, and his innate sense of theatre. Yes, he makes the cast move a lot more than normal (as expected when your main claim to fame is choreography and dance) but it is all done with thought, and care. If, the Ping Pang & Pong reminiscence scene is a bit too busy and silly (and I did not notice it being so last night, which reflects well on the performers) that can be blamed as much on Puccini and his librettists as on Murphy. That scene does seem too long many times, and holding up the action. But, that is its point. Last night, it became a calm peaceful respite, before the glorious loud noises of the riddle scene.
So, to the cast. It was a measure of the strength of this cast, that despite my decision to go to this performance based on the Turandot of Lise Lindstrom, at the end of Act 1, with Turandot not having sung a note, I was very happy with what I had heard.The trio of Ping Pang and Pong, in the hands of Luke Gabbedy, Graeme Macfarlane and John Longmuir really did function as one. Their antics were never a threat to their sound, and their ensemble singing was impressive.
As Timur, the mystery prince's father, we had the imposing Jud Arthur. His was a convincing old man, which for those of us who know what he looks like (tall, fit and muscular), is impressive. His was a Timur we could care about, especially as he was ably assisted by the glorious Liu of Hyeseoung Kwon. Her years of singing this role means she probably can sing it in her sleep, but, she really does embody this role. Her death will bring a tear to your eye. Everytime.
As the ice princess herself, we had the reason I chose to come to the first cast, the lovely Lise Lindstrom. Her voice is not the big warm Italianate sound of many Turandots, but the ice of a Nilsson or similar. It is a metallic sound that cuts clearly through the complexity of the orchestra and chorus singing at full pelt. And, considering that where I was sitting meant that full volume felt like low level aural assault, yes, she is loud!! And, yes, she does come much closer to a successful portrayal of the ice princess melting than most Turandots do. But, doing that is a challenge for anyone, with how it is written. Going from watching the person you are about to have tortured kill herself, to turning yourself into someone allowing herself to fall in love for the first time. Its a big ask for anyone, even with Puccini writing the music for it (though, that is assembled by Alfano for the final act in the version we heard). That Lindstrom makes you see the wavering to allowing love, and make you believe, is no mean feat.
But, ultimately, the night belonged to the Calaf of Yonghoon Lee, and the glorious chorus. That such a small chorus can sound so large, and produce so much sound with such precision, is a powerful statement. They have long been good, but under Anthony Hunt, they are growing even stronger. Small numbers do not mean small sounds.
And the Calaf. Yonghoon actually managed to make me forget that Calaf is a complete selfish prick. His is a likeable foolhardy Calaf who you wanted to win. He poured forth large amounts of beautiful ringing secure tenor sounds from start to finish. He has a much lighter higher sound than most of the Calafs you hear. It is more the sound you might expect to hear as say Rodolfo, rather than Calaf. But, he certainly had the power to sing over the chorus, and to sing that aria with sufficient style and conviction, that to compare him to other recent tenors of significance would be churlish. This is a voice that should much better known.
But, really, last night was a night of great opera. It sounded great, it looked magnificent, and, that ultimate arbiter of technique, my throat, never started feeling sore in sympathy with any of the singers. It was the sort of night where everything was just gloriously good, and you could just wallow in the beautiful sounds that Christian Badea was pulling from the cast and orchestra. Could you ask for more?
This is the tenor who takes over in August, showing what the production looks like in full flight