Turandot and Calaf in COC Turandot
Tamara Wilson (Turandot) and Sergey Skorokhodov (Calaf) in Canadian Opera Company’s Turandot— Photo: Michael Cooper

Canadian Opera Company’s (COC) season-opening presentation of Puccini’s Turandot (seen Sept. 28th) showcased the full force of legendary avant-garde director Robert Wilson’s genre-shattering impact on opera. As much as Wilson’s sparse, hard-edged aesthetic felt deeply at home with Turandot’s bizarre vision of a cruel and otherworldly Beijing—in which the exiled Prince Calaf must survive Princess Turandot’s series of deadly trials before finally melting her heart—it was also starkly alien to what audiences have come to expect from Puccini’s lush and exotic score. It was precisely this dichotomy, however, that allowed Wilson to re-imagine not only Puccini’s opera but opera itself, all the while setting the ideal stage for a masterful musical performance.

Though minimal to the extreme and intensely hostile to any trace of naturalism, Wilson’s direction was immediately entrancing, immersing its audience in an abstracted world entirely distinct from mundane reality. Singers faced the audience head-on every moment of every scene, holding stiff, squared poses for minutes on end. Dramatic beats were marked with little more than constrained twirls or mechanical gestures. With their faces painted sharp white under grotesquely exaggerated features, the cast looked and acted more like porcelain dolls than people.

Turandot in COC Turandot
Tamara Wilson (Turandot) in Canadian Opera Company’s Turandot—Photo: Michael Cooper

It could be said that Wilson imagines opera as a genre wholly separate from thespianism, allying it instead with the visual arts of cinema, sculpture, and painting. Among the production’s most remarkable aspects was its lighting (also designed by Wilson), whose ubiquitous contrast of  ghostly blue-white and deep, piercing red defined not only the opera’s staging, but also its energy and pace. Similarly, Wilson’s no-frills set design offered a masterclass in thrift, as simple, slow-moving geometric shapes accomplished enormous tonal shifts throughout the narrative.

Special mention must be made of the court ministers, renamed Jim, Bob, and Bill—instead of Puccini’s original Ping, Pang and Pong—as performed by baritone Adrian Timpau and tenors Julius Ahn and Joseph Hu. Appearing in distinctly contemporary, black business suits, the trio mounted a crucial self-parody of Wilson’s distinctly austere style. In one scene they emulated the main cast’s stiffness before jauntily hopping around the stage, wobbling their joints like marionettes, laughing at each other as if to mock the narrative as it played out.

Unfortunately, the jesters’ comic stylings—especially those of Ahn and Hu, who were also the only singers of obviously East Asian descent cast in the production—slipped too easily from the commedia dell’arte buffoonery that inspired Turandot to the vulgar racist caricatures of Puccini’s era. Despite production consultant Richard Lee’s call for “an honest conversation” about Turandot’s cultural appropriation and racial stereotyping in official COC marketing materials, the portrayal of Jim, Bob, and Bill (who continued to be co-named Ping, Pang, and Pong all over the official program and in the sung text) did little to substantially address the issue, leaving the opera’s problematic history an alarmingly loose end of the production.

Joseph Hu (Bill/Pong), Sergey Skorokhodov (Calaf), Julius Ahn (Bob/Pang), Adrian Timpau (Jim/Ping) in Canadian Opera Company’s Turandot—Photo: Michael Cooper

On the whole, Wilson’s genius lay in his driving a clean wedge between his aesthetic innovations and the musical prowess of the original score. As a result, the score shone through all the more brightly. Much of this was owed to conductor Carlo Rizzi, who elicited dynamic shadings and expert timing from the COC Orchestra carrying the pace of the opera with impeccable tact.

In the role of Calaf, tenor Sergey Skorokhodov’s guttural, plaintive vocalism and authentic passion suggested a constant struggle to break free of the statuesque poses dictated by Wilson’s aesthetic. Hitting the famous high B of “Nessun dorma” with an enraptured thrust and a distinctly human grain, his voice mirrored his character’s out-of-place-ness in Puccini’s cold fairytale world. However, Skorokhodov had some trouble making himself heard in ensemble, experiencing more success when the stage was ceded to him alone.

COC Turandot
A scene from Canadian Opera Company’s Turandot—Photo: Michael Cooper

This was by no means the case for soprano Tamara Wilson (Turandot), whose crisp, stately tones soared above the orchestra. In consistently achieving a rich, resonant sound, Wilson probably benefited the most from the production’s lack of physical movement, as her stillness only emphasized the incredible power of her unembellished voice. Meanwhile, soprano Joyce El-Khoury gave a rousing performance as Liù, swinging easily through smooth, glassy melodies and soft, echoing high notes that seemed to glide effortlessly from upstage to the house.

Overall, this Turandot felt like an animatronic diorama acting out a breathtaking opera: the craftsmanship was exquisite and the music masterfully produced, but there were no humans here. By fixating on the divide between each character’s physical and vocal presence, director Wilson abandoned the prospect of portraying any kind of connection—or, dare I say, love—between them. For this very reason, however, the subtle revelation of Turandot’s humanness at the performance’s close—though accomplished with nothing more than an awkward smile and the simple embodied motion of breathing—was especially cathartic. For those willing to wait out Wilson’s deft hand, this subtle turn was more than enough to elevate his vision from mere novelty to an astounding reinvention of Puccini’s classic.

2 COMMENTS

  1. When engaged and shortly after marriage my wife and I attended several operas and were enthralled by the beauty, the spectacle of it all. We were hooked. We told our daughters how wonderful they were when they were growing up, but never could afford to take them due to our youngest daughter’s medical problems and the expenses it entailed. Finally, we got a chance to take them, their husbands, and my parents who are in their eighties, none who have ever seen an opera, to see the grandeur, the beauty, the wonder we always talked about. We couldn’t have been more disappointed. If I knew I would be watching a bunch of motionless, statuesque characters singing in an empty room I could stay home and listen to it in the comfort of my home. You have taken out of the opera everything that makes it what it is. If this is what the future of opera is to be I am afraid it will soon just be a thing of the past. Minimalism is for paintings and sculpture, maybe some modern theatre, but never for opera. Though they do love listening to some opera, I’m afraid I will never get my family to give this another chance.

  2. Imagine the classic and timeless “Casablanca” where all actors have to stand motionless facing the camera at all times with faces painted white and not allowed to have facial expressions….. Now ask yourself: would you watch that movie? Would you pay to see it?
    After having seen Turandot several times, including at Scala and Arena Di Verona, both Franco Zeffirelli productions, or different productions at the Met or Fenice, I must say this was sadly the worst production I’ve ever seen, in any opera (not just Turandot) ever produced. Extremely disappointed….
    This is my problem with COC (where I’m a donor) – every so often they bring in a director with no experience of opera that tries to “innovate” or “break the mould” or “modernize”…. And the results are consistently disappointing, at times such as this one catastrophic.
    Why do opera companies, wait, not opera companies but artistic directors (and I fully blame Mr Neef for this) get it that we pay (and donate) to see a classically beautiful story accompanied by great music, singing, acting and atmosphere and not to see someone “express themselves” by ruining our enjoyment….

    Very very sad indeed

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