Theorin sparks a worthy “Turandot” to open San Francisco Opera’s season

September 10, 2011

Irene Theorin in the title role of "Turandot," which opened San Francisco Opera's season Friday night at the War Memorial Opera House. Photo: Cory Weaver

The first hour of an opening night is never the best arbiter of a season — or of an evening. Such was the case Friday night when San Francisco Opera kicked off its 89th season at the War Memorial Opera House with Turandot, in a performance that took awhile to catch fire but ultimately ushered in the new season in worthy and compelling style.

Puccini’s final opera remains a dark, strange and somewhat static work, even with its rare (for Puccini) sort-of happy ending. Calaf’s love for the remote, man-hating Chinese royal remains as improbable as her sudden capitulation to him in Act 3. Only the gentle slave girl Liu, who sacrifices herself for Calaf, whom she loves, brings the single bit of humanity in the opera.

But of course, it isn’t the scenario’s lack of verisimilitude but the music that has kept Turandot alive—not just the soaring and inescapable Nessun dorma but Turandot’s Act 2 showpiece, Liu’s two arias and Puccini’s audacious and forward-looking working of Chinese musical motifs into his score.

David Hockney’s scenic design, first unveiled at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1992, is starting to look like a period piece, but still works its practical primary-colored magic with some eye-popping tableaux and costumes. Christopher Maravich’s artful lighting deftly mitigated some of the more garish aspects of the reds, greens and purples.

The same can’t be said for the stage direction, which got the evening off to a decidedly sluggish start (“Turgid, turgid,” pronounced one veteran SFO matron at intermission). Garnett Bruce’s direction  seemed confused with awkward blocking, dull movements and much stand and deliver at the footlights. In their most impassioned moments Turandot and Calaf aren’t even looking at each other most of the time. Things improved somewhat as the evening unfolded.

Fortunately the musical values were of a higher standard and though it took a while for things to gel, the cast, music director Nicola Luisotti and the SFO orchestra and chorus largely delivered the goods in characteristic style.

Among the principals Irene Theorin was the clear standout in her San Francisco debut. The Swedish soprano has a pure and gleaming instrument,  and handed the daunting demands of In questa reggia with aplomb, if not quite that extra bit of expansiveness and punch. 

What Theorin brought to the role was a subtlety both vocally and dramatically that made the cardboard villainess more of a  rounded figure than usual. Her questioning Liu about her devotion to Calaf showed a touching sincerity and Theorin was at her finest in the final scene, nearly making Turandot’s abrupt transition from man-hating murderess to besotted lover believable.

Marco Berti’s middle-weight tenor has ample strength but not much refinement, sounding rather burly and hard toned in Act 1. Like everything else, Berti improved markedly as the evening progressed, dramatic and on point in the riddle scene and delivering an imposing and powerful Nessun dorma.

Leah Crocetto made a generally favorable impression as the doomed slave girl, Liu. The current Adler Fellow’s acting was a bit pedestrian, and she was not at her best in Act 1 but made the most of Liu’s final scene, with her clear, pure-toned singing most affecting.

Hyung Yun was the best of the commedia dell’arte trio, bringing an incisive baritone to Ping, with Greg Fedderly’s Pang and Daniel Montenegro’s Pong in support. Raymond Aceto was an unusually strongly sung Timur, Ryan Kuster a fine Mandarin, and Joseph Frank an admirable Emperor. Ian Robertson’s San Francisco Opera Chorus sang quite gloriously throughout.

Nicola Luisotti directed with combustible power and intensity, though oddly for an Italian conductor in Puccini, his style seemed more Central European than Mediterranean. Though there was undoubted refinement in lyrical passages, elsewhere Luisotti’s direction was hard edged and aggressively violent with whipcrack climaxes that sounded like Fafner emerging from his lair.

Luisotti did make a compelling case for Alfano’s original completed finale—rather than the drastically truncated version Toscanini chopped down at the premiere, which has become standard. It flows better, is musically more nuanced and seems overall more cohesive, aided here by the sensitive acting of Theorin.

So it seems that all these years we should have been blaming Toscanini for his blunt-edged editing rather than Alfano whose work held up very well indeed Friday night in San Francisco.

Turandot runs through October 4.; 415-864-3330.

One Response to “Theorin sparks a worthy “Turandot” to open San Francisco Opera’s season”

  1. Posted Sep 10, 2011 at 11:36 pm by Robert Ericson

    This seems to be the ONLY negative review of the performance which has high praise. Perhaps the author was at the wrong opera.