Monday, October 3, 2011


Saturday night at San Francisco Opera I saw Puccini's Chinese fairy tale Turandot. Above, three of the five David Hockney sets, originally created in 1992 for Chicago's Lyric Opera. One reviewer called these Nineties designs dated and garish. To me, a cartoon-inspired Technicolor approach seemed altogether appropriate for the exaggerated simplicity of the story line and characters.

Swedish soprano Irene Theorin (above) portrayed the icy, man-killing princess of the title role. Italian tenor Marco Berti (below) sang Calaf, brave and silly enough to volunteer as the 13th suitor for Turandot's royal hand, even though he knows that the previous 12 have all had their heads cut off when they failed to solve the unwilling lady's riddles.

The role of Turandot is perilous -- not only unusually high but also unusually loud throughout (the singing has to be gi-normously loud simply to be heard against Puccini's aggressive scoring). Calaf's part is similarly punishing. Even in major houses like San Francisco, the leads tend to be sung by relative unknowns, ready to risk vocal damage (and a shortened career) in exchange for international reputations.

In other words, just to perform the music audibly and on pitch is already a sort of circus stunt. Nobody could reasonably expect these singers to be able to do what they have to do and also act at the same time. And I was glad to know this in advance, because on Saturday night there was precious little acting on offer. They stood and they sang -- adequately, but not expressively.

The black and white photo is from the 1964 San Francisco production with another Swedish soprano, the Wagnerian specialist Birgit Nilsson (1918-2005), already in her middle forties when pictured here. "Her voice was noted for its overwhelming force, bountiful reserves of power and the gleaming brilliance and clarity in the upper register." Nilsson was the exception, someone who could sing Turandot with seeming ease and could also make it humanly convincing. Judging by recordings, no other famous soprano of the 20th century could reliably do both.

The orchestra actually stole the show in my opinion. There is both a lushness and a precision in the playing now that I never remember hearing before. Nicola Luisotti has achieved amazing things in his few short seasons as music director here, and they more than justify his florid manner on the podium (often he seems to be conducting with his hair, the same way Leonard Bernstein used to).