Last year, the Auckland Philharmonia’s Opera In Concert was, by all accounts, a stunning performance of Wagner’s monumental opera Tristan und Isolde. On Friday night, we got another stunning in-concert performance of Giacomo Puccini’s unfinished opera “Turandot”.
Known to some as the opera “Nessun Dorma” (it’s an aria, not an opera), the story itself is rather exotic and set in a mythical, somewhat fantastical China. In short, princes who seek the hand of Princess Turandot need to answer her three riddles correctly otherwise they will be beheaded. This seems harsh until you understand that Turandot’s character can be summarised as someone did, as being “a fierce man-hating princess who aims to kill anyone wanting to marry her, in the belief that she is avenging a mistreated ancestor”. You get the picture.
Back to the story. The Prince of Persia is the latest victim for execution. In the crowd gathering for his execution is Calaf, the Prince of Tartary, a region now conquered by the Orientals. Calaf, who is travelling surreptitiously, by chance stumbles on his father King Timur, now blind, and his only remaining servant Liu. Calaf, on seeing Turandot at the execution, falls instantly in love and determines to accept the challenge of the riddles despite protests from more than a few.
Turandot’s three questions are “What is born each night and dies each dawn?” , “What flickers red and warm like a flame, but is not fire?” and “What is ice which gives you fire and which your fire freezes still more?”. No spoilers here but rest assured Calaf answers all three correctly.
But the happy ending does not eventuate – Turandot does not want to marry Calaf and does not know the Prince’s name anyway. Calaf quickly turns that into a riddle for her to answer by sunrise. Turandot commands that no-one will sleep until the prince’s name is discovered and this is where that famous aria comes in – “none shall sleep”. But Calaf is certain he will win.
As things get rather ugly from that point, it’s probably best to leave the plot there and focus on the performance which was stellar.
Two very strong leads ensured that this performance would be a memorable one.
Italian soprano Tiziana Caruso was mesmerising as Turandot projecting the character’s fierceness, nobility and, at the end, vulnerability with exceptional clarity. Elaborate costumes and surtitles were not necessary as her vocal power and stage presence alone defined the character.
Brazilian tenor Thiago Arancam as Calaf impressed greatly with Jonas Kauffman-like looks and vocal timbre to match. His performance of Nessun Dorma was highly anticipated of course and he did it well but he had already impressed the audience well before that with a captivating stage and vocal presence, particularly with the aria Non piangere, Liu and his appeal to Turandot to allow him to take her challenge.
If you know the opera well, you will know that a strong Turandot needs an equally strong Liu and German soprano Nadja Stefanoff provided wonderful vocal colour and strength of character. Her performance of the aria Signore, ascolta in Act 1 as well as her performance throughout Act 3 conveyed the strength of Liu’s unrequited love for Calaf without ignoring the tragedy that goes with it.
The bureaucratic Ping, Pang and Pong provide humour, particularly in Act 2 and Andrew Moran, Robert Macfarlane and Richard Greager provided wistfulness as well as a rotund comicality which contrast the serious plot points. Faroese bass Runi Brattaberg, a welcome return visitor impressed as the blind King Timur as did Australian tenor Christopher Lincoln Bogg as the Emperor Altoum. And Warwick Fyfe’s Mandarin, who is the first voice you hear, set the scene wonderfully with his pronouncements of the laws of the land.
Musically, at the centre of it all was an augmented Auckland Philharmonia performing at its best under their Music Director Eckehard Stier who controlled things magnificently and drew every ounce of emotion and drama from the lucious music that Puccini wrote. Mention too must be made of the excellent contribution from the chorus comprising of Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus and Viva Voce.
Worth a standing ovation ? Definitely !