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Sunday, September 17, 2006 Opening Night, Lyric Opera, Chicago

This was an opera rerun for both me and L. I don't just mean that we'd seen Turandot before; we'd actually seen this specific production, designed by David Hockney back in Lyric's 1996-1997 season (though the production was originally designed for Lyric and the San Francisco Opera in 1991-92). At first intermission, as we jockeyed for lemon bars and brownies (you'd think that the patrons were starving chorus members), L mused that he hadn't known much about opera back then. Certainly, I didn't. However, I still feel like I don't know much beyond my experience of it, which is no good to anyone but me.

I do remember the design rather irritating me in some instances back then. My overwhelming impression was "RED"—not the most original shorthand for China and more of a reach here than for, oh, let's just say Nixon in China. It's possible that I was just a complete ignoramus at the time. It's possible that working on a production of No Exit featuring live couches left me with zero tolerance for sight gags. It's possible that it was our crappy second balcony seats (although, of course, it's a not insubstantial criticisim of a design to say that cheap seaters need not apply for enjoyment of it) that were to blame. Whatever the reason, a design that left a vaguely negative impression 10 years ago wowed me last night.

The set for Act I looks bizarre in the photo on the program's title page. In fact, the photo makes it look so much like Theodore Geisel going through a painful "But I want to design sets for German Expressionist films!" phase that I was skeptical that this was, in fact the production I'd seen even though the familiarity of Turandot's shark-fin-shaped tower was impossible to deny. I can't find photos online and I'm not sure much will be gained by scanning a black and white photo off a glossy page from the program, so you're just going to have to take my word for it that it's difficult to appreciate in two dimensions.

The setting, of course, is legendary Peking. The peasants assemble before the emperor's palace hoping to be entertained by the execution of the Prince of Persia, who apparently has not been getting his "Princesses to Avoid" memos. There are some complex requirements for staging the act. Turandot must be absolutely apart from mandarin, executioner, and peasant alike. A metric assload of people need to move on and off the stage, competing with the needs of keeping an English (Chinese?) assload of peasants on stage more or less throughout. Oh, and none of this should feel small scale or intimate if you have any hope of the audience really getting Turandot as something more than a neurotic prude.

Hockney takes the direction that the setting is China in "legendary antiquity" and runs with it, so I guess invoking Seuss isn't entirely off the mark. The dominant set piece for Act I is Turandot's tower. The shape is difficult to describe, particularly for someone with a black hole where spatial relationships and art should be in her brain. The downstage, visible face is a trapezoid that is much taller than it is wide. This face bulges outward; high up, there is an scrim-covered, oval opening through which Turandot and her handmaidens are made visible at the appropriate moment. This ends in a base that would be pentagonal (the tower itself overlays the fifth side) if it didn't have a series of seven or eight irregular steps cut into it. The base is angled so that the upstage area is much higher than the downstage, which ends in steps at the level of the stage floor. The upstage face of the tower is a ski jump so that the downstage left face of the tower looks like a right triangle with concave curve as the hypotenuse.

This leaves the downstage area a broad, asymmetrical U to work with around the base of the tower. There is a long ramp that broadens dramatically as it slopes down at a not inconsiderable grade from upstage right to downstage, just right of center (where the base of the tower winds up), and a shorter ramp proceeding upstage left of the tower; this shorter ramp angles up through a series of nested archways whose tops are cut into free-form swags vaguely suggestive of pagoda tops. Upstage and between the tower and the stage right ramp are a series of flats arranged at angles to one another.

These nonfunctional ramps, as well as the stage-right ramp, are overhung with a series of undulating awnings (I can't really find a picture that does justice to them, but these are close). These corrugated swags appear to be carelessly attached at random heights, but together with the odd angles of the set at floor level they convey the sense that those entering and leaving the stage have traveled immense distances through choked Peking streets.

Simultaneously, the crazy geometry of the upstage, nonfocal flats and their awnings conspire to create a road of endless switchbacks in the distance, or even a view of the Great Wall like this. Overall, there's an incredible sense of road traveled and travelable. About the only unfortunate aspect of the staging was the fact that Bryan Griffin (no, really!) is quite wee and dressing him up like Naboo, then placing him on a ramp with a steep slope is somewhat unkind.

The lighting is also more subtle than I remembered it being. Yes, everything is red toned at times to highlight the death's head lanterns and the hypno-grindstone as Pu-Tin-Pao and his funkadelic Day of the Dead Back-Up Executioners come out for the pre-show entertainment. But the light also shifts to soft blue-white moonlight as the peasants go through the kind of sentiment whiplash I previously thought to be possibly only in the era of the 24-hour "news" cycle and to gold tinged with red as the Mandarins offer Calaf Marsellus Wallace's soul if he'll only leave the damned gong alone. In general, there's nuance, which seems like an oxymoron in the context of such a whacked out (effectively, yes, but still whacked out) set.

Just as my mind adjusted to the crazy skew of Act I, Act II starts out in Ping, Pang, and Pong's personal rooms. And, of course, there's an instantaneous scene change that needs to happen in the middle of the act, taking us from this intimate space to the comparatively open spaces of the royal courtyard. Hockney goes for a completely different visual trick in scene i, using a scrim to separate the apron from upstage. This is painted in very flat, bold colors and it is divided into three not-quite equal panels. The cover of this book is the closest kin to the style of the painting on the scrim.

Each panel represents a room. Each "room" had some kind of typical Chinese print on the back wall, a rug on the floor, and a couple of simple, straight-backed chairs on the rug. The depth of each was established with pretty elementary perspective techniques (in contrast to the Act I set, which took hold of one's stereoscopic vision and twisted), as if to say, "This is how I could fool you, if I felt like it." The artificiality of the perspective technique works well in tandem with the comparatively natural feel of the prints on the back "wall." Likewise, the loud clown-like costumes of the ministers and the broad choreography (which was, perhaps, the teensiest bit under-rehearsed, which was odd given that it seemed David Cangelosi was having the most issues, and his wonderful physicality is legendary) was well set against this backdrop of contradictions during their songs of heartfelt longing for home and a China not bathed in the blood of would-be suitors.

For scene ii, the scrim is flown out and we see the courtyard of the palace as though we're simply viewing Act I's set through a more powerful objective. A staircase dominates the center of the stage and was flanked throughout by gaggles of peasants congesting the downstage entrances from the wings. Upstage of it, a zig-zag of ramp leads down from the restricted inner space of the palace. The emperor (carried on a cool litter by his attendants) enters through a narrow opening in the upstage wall of the set, and its exclusivity is further enhanced by the fact that the entrance is actually angled slightly down right so that an aperture between two flats that are actually quite close together appears to be the egress from a long, narrow hallway.

There were some practical issues with this set, though. I'm all for emphasizing the sacred space occupied only by the emperor to which even Turandot is denied entrance. However, this dictated that Turandot make her grand entrance by mounting a set of stairs to the highest point on the ramp (upstage right), then descend the ramp, then descend the stairs part way. And all of this must be accomplished in the the Pointy Headdress of DOOM! (ours wasn't nearly so pointy and, frankly, I feel cheated) while dragging the biggest train in this or any other province. This means that her headdress enters the scene about 12 bars before the rest of her and her train lags at least as many bars behind. And, really, as wide as the ramps are, they're not rated for containing the train. Here, again, there were some opening night blocking issues.

Although I loved all the sets and the overall design, Act III's set was a complete triumph. Not only does it have a thankless scene change in the middle like Act II, it absolutely must bring together the intimate and the sweeping landscape, the personal and the political. It has to accomodate Nessun dorma and Turandot's declaration before the emperor and all of China that the stranger's name is Love. Yeah, good luck with that.

The staircase makes a reappearance, which might seem like a hard sell as the peasantry wander the palace gardens at night, trying to discover the stranger's name. The fact that it's painted bright PLA blue and has wide, red railings ending in a dramatic scroll doesn't sound like it would help. But the gardens are represented with abstract cutout work reminiscent of the pagoda tops in Act I, and somehow the staircase is half cascading water, half gentle hummock. (Ok, it also looks like the Devo fountains from Wenchland, but it works I tell you!). With the peasants shuffling through and the lighting during Nessun dorma, the set in scene i is strongly reminiscent of The Gate by Don S. Davis. (Sorry for the crappy photo of my dining room reflected in the glass: I can no longer find images of that style of his artwork online, which is unfortunate as I have mad love for that painting.) The resemblance had just struck me when L leaned over to comment that he'd come to the same conclusion.

With the help of more nuance from the lighting design, the set plausibly doubles as a space that is not quite artificial interior or naturalistic exterior when it needs to. It ably accommodates the crowd during the confrontation between Turandot and Liu, and it still feels appropriately intimate for the non-Puccini duet and Turandot's "conversion." I hate to keep harping on the blocking, but the one thing that pointedly does NOT work in this scene is the on-scene change for Turandot with the aid of her handmaidens. The costume is all well and good (jade with abstract black designs that evoke the patterns suggesting the gardens: the natural and the royal, the woman and the princess, the personal and the political. Love it), but the choice to shroud her in the same veiling worn by the concubines with whom Ping, Pang, and Pong try to tempt Calaf? Um, I'm thinking that you weren't going for It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown as she stumbled alarmingly down the stairs.

When the big scene change calls for transformation into the interior of the palace, rather than flying out the naturalistic elements representing the gardens, Hockney's design flies in more cutouts so that the emperor is contained within a dense framework that is a gorgeous homage to the Art Nouveau style of the print and press materials for the opera by artists like Leopoldo Metlicovitz in 1926.

Again, there is the feeling that Hockney has just rotated the objective turret again to give us an intimate look at Turandot as she chooses, occupies, and dominates her space within the emperor's court. She stands a few steps above Calaf as she makes her declaration (although, dude! Costume sp01l3rz! She's wearing a red cloak. Red cloak = wedding. Well, or Imperial Guard, but wedding is more contextually likely) as The Princess, and invites Calaf to join her as The Woman. The "Son of Heaven," of course, is still literally apart and above the crowd, but the crowd is, in turn allowed to approach nearer to him through the conduit of Turandot.

Though I know it pains my pal M, Puccini continues to grow on me, musically speaking. It's true that the orchestration too frequently competes with the vocal line, something that was particularly frustrating in the first act, less so later on. At the second intermission, L rather sheepishly admitted that he was looking forward to Nessun dorma, but I've got to give props to such an overplayed piece that still brings chills when done as beautifully as it was last night.

One of the things that has persistently niggled at me even in the midst of enjoyment of Puccini is how modern his music sounds. Specifically, it has been jarring to hear music that so closely approximates a film score. As an aside on that, I found it funny that so many of the more exotic passages in Turandot brought to mind the music of Westerns. Of course, it makes sense: The Old West was meant to look and feel exotic. Still it's a a brain-skewing auditory experience to hear certain well-known elements embedded in such a different context.

But even leaving aside the exotic, standard Puccini often sits cheek-by-jowl with Max Steiner. Again, this isn't especially surprising giving when and where Puccini lived and died. There is just a wall in my head that keeps film and opera separate. But between Hockney's design and Puccini's music, that wall took a beating last night. Ultimately I was led to the conclusion that when the movie of my life is inevitably made, I'm going to have to have Zombie!Puccini write my entrance music.

And although that kind of commanding-to-the-point-of-bombastic approach is what I most strongly associate with Puccini, Turandot shows his other facets to great advantage. I love that so much of Act II is dominated by the unaccompanied vocal lines of the emperor and Calaf punctuated by the emotionally directive low brass and percussion (MORE imPORTANT than BASEBALL?!? Dun Dun DUN!) and the chattering of the crowd on strings and winds. And, of course, it all wraps up with Return of the Monster Orchestration befitting the cliffhanger.

At long last I turn to the performers. (I always have this backwards, don't I? Give me a film and I'll go on and on about the foley and soundtrack. Give me an opera and you cannot pry me away from the visuals.) First in my heart is Vladamir Galouzine. If he had any problems with power in Manon Lescaut, he more than redeemed himself here when his spine-tingling tenor tingled away despite the fact that the cruel, cruel stage director had him facing the back wall through 90% of the scene. Although it seems more traditional to dress Calaf in Chinese garb along with everyone else, the more generically non-Chinese costume in this production went a long way to give him the burly manliness to match his pipes. As I found in Manon he also has the acting chops to pull off passion, no matter how nonsensical the plot may be. In his personal blurb, he notes: "I find Calaf sympathetic, although in the opera's draatugy and in the libretto, many things are not logical. I try not to focus on these matters to keep my role credible." Keep on keepin' on, my man.

Calaf, of course, is the uncontested vocal star of the opera, even if the title is a victim of Puccini's heroine fixation. However, Timur is a juicy bass role, if not an extensive one. You'll forgive me if I do not recall Hao Jiang Tian from a minor role in the 1996 Don Carlo, which I also saw. As Timur, he refuses to be dominated by his oversized, ermine-trimmed Grimace cape, and one almost needs the cape to make the voice coming from its depths seem like it could be attached to a mere mortal. Emeror Altoum has a similarly minimal role and is a tenor, no less. (Men of power should always be Basses. So mote it be.) Rodell Rosel thus doesn't have a lot to work with, but he does a creditable job, if not one as memorable as Hao Jiang Tian's.

Our Ping, Pang, and Pong were Quinn Kelsey, David Cangelosi, and Scott Ramsay, respectively. Kelsey had already impressed me in Faust and in Carmen, and this may be his finest performance yet. I won't recount all of David Cangelosi's successes in my view, but I feel it's just not a Lyric Opera without him. Blocking trouble notwithstanding, I will listen to and watch him any day of the week. For whatever reason, we did not see Ramsay as Mark in Midsummer Marriage and I find no comment on him in my Cunning Little Vixen musings. I wish I could say he finally emerged from the pack here, but all I can really say is that he was well matched with Kelsey and Cangelosi for triumvirate purposes.

The children's choir gave a very solid performance in Act I. I don't envy the person responsible for getting two dozen kiddos into bald caps and monks' robes. As I told L I would've tested commitment to fame and fortune by insisting on shaving them. Much more efficient.

And that leaves us with the gals. Patricia Racette, once again, draws the narratively thankless role of Liu, the slave who is moved to accompany the exiled Timur in his wanderings by her memory of Calaf once smiling at her. You'll never come to a good end with low standards like that. As I noted in Carmen, Racette frequently makes artistic choices regarding vibrato and dynamics that don't really appeal to me. This was a big problem in Act I when her attack consistently resulted in all the challenging tones starting out very soft, then swelling. It's not especially appealing aurally and it feels like cheating. Judging by the fact that she wiped the floor with everyone in Act III though, I don't think she is. I don't think she'll ever achieve the casual approach of Mattila or Fleming, but Tanto amore segreto and Tu che di gel sei cinta had passion and technique enough to satisfy most, and her ovation indicates that she did more than satisfy the opening night crowd.

Circling around at last ot the titular heroine, Turandot is a hard sell in a way very uncharacteristic for Puccini. Like all his heroines, I think he truly loves her underneath it all, but he seems to have gone and died before he could beat his librettists into an ending that communicates exactly why. This production does an admirable job of conflating the body human and the body politic, then dissecting out the identities. Still, it seems that Andrea Gruber might have had some fears that the Ice Princess might remain misunderstood. The color and character of her voice are not especially to my liking and L noted that there were some questionable moments with regard to tone. But seeing the trouble she was having deploying some of the costuming on the sets, I wondered if she was not more anxious about the dramatic elements of her performance, which led her astray technically from time to time. She was by no means terrible, but her voice didn't grab either of us, and her applause didn't measure up to Racette's by any means.

But all in all, a great opening night for Lyric and a wonderful revisitation for me.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

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7:39 PM  

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