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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Opera in Three Acts and Five Scenes.
Turandot………………………………Eva Marton
Calaf…………………………………..Michael Sylvester
Liù…………………………………….Lucia Mazzaria
Timur…………………………………Kevin Langan
Ping………………………………… Theodore Baerg
Pang………………………………….Dennis Peterson
Pong………………………………….Craig Estep
Emperor Altoum…………………… .Joseph Frank
Mandarin…………………………….Chestor Patton
Prince of Persia…… ……………… Tim Lewis
Executioner………………………… Victor Liu
Production Design - David Hockney
San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra
conducted by Donald Runnicles

ARTHAUS MUSIK 100 088 [123 mins]


Inevitably, criticism of DVDs, of operas, must concentrate on the visuals. In this case, David Hockney's designs score highly. Thankfully he has opted for a basically traditional approach and the results are very pleasing and highly dramatic.

Act I opens on a scene in stark reds and blues - only primary colours for this lurid, barbaric scene, no subtle shades of colour here! The buildings that comprise the Imperial Palace are huge, black and threateningly distorted in their perspectives, echoing Puccini's slashing discordant notes that open the opera, seizing our attention and making us realise that he is to use the orchestra in a fresh way. The lighting is highly dramatic, too, with the faces of the crowd lit red as they thirst for blood after the mandarin's proclamation. Only Calaf, Timur and Liù are bathed in the cooler blue light of reason. This blue, turned ghostly, predominates as the crowd exhorts, to the moon, 'O severed head' singing to almost Debussy-like soft impressionistic music that completely belies the barbarity of the words. This chorus by the way is excellent and is one of the highlights of the San Francisco Act I. The lantern-lit procession of the doomed Prince of Persia is a nice bit of theatre especially when the Prince is shown the huge sword that will severe his head. It casts a gigantic shadow on an upper casement which will open to reveal Turandot, clothed in red, who, ignoring the pleas of mercy from the crowd, signals that the young Prince be executed. The well-known arias towards the end of the Act please. Liù (Lucia Mazzaria) after a bit of a waivery start, poignantly tries to dissuade Calaf from rashly accepting Turandot's challenge. But, of course, Michael Silvester, all rash bravado, and a stout Calaf, in many senses of the word, rushes forward to bang the gong to accept the challenge. This closing spectacle should have had more dramatic impact - it is certainly one of the most powerful in the Puccini canon except, perhaps, for the closing of Act I of Tosca.

Ping, Pang and Pong's pavillion which is the set for Scene One of Act II is the warmest and most intimate, for these loveable commedia dell'arte characters. Hockney's design has flattened furniture in a false perspective backdrop plus a beautiful monochrome tapestry hanging down like a huge oblong pennant. This has a watery picture of pagodas and willows but when the trio sing nostalgically of their homes this picture softens and becomes dreamily nocturnal in the semi-darkened room. This lovely evocative little number is sung beguilingly by Ping, Pang and Pong who, by the way, are excellent as both actors and singers. Scene Two returns us to another aspect of the outside of the palace, but again shown as huge and domineering with the Emperor enthroned at the top of a huge staircase spiralling downwards towards the front of the stage. This time the setting has the advantage of daylight and we can appreciate all the lavish costumes resplendent in crimsons, yellows blues and golds. Turandot (a magnificently regal and haughty Eva Marton) appears in green to set Calaf those fateful riddles. She radiates chilly contempt but as Puccini's passionate Mai nessun m'avrà (none shall posses me) music reaches its climax, before the setting of the three riddles, its sudden romantic sweetness suggests Calaf's triumph and Turandot's eventual melting and surrender. Sylvester is fierily, confidently heroic as he wins his way through the riddles and throws down his own challenge to Turandot to discover his name.

The nocturnal stage setting for Act III has sylvan beauty. Silhouettes of tree boughs frame a bridge as figures cross an indigo background bemoaning that none can sleep for the identity of the stranger must be discovered. The dark colours are broken by one solitary full moon-shaped red lantern passing to and fro in the background. This is a very atmospheric introduction to the hit number of the opera Nessun dorma!, delivered to rapturous applause by an ardent Sylvester. Later we are treated to a much more confident Liù, affectingly poignant as she prophesies that Turandot will learn to love Calaph, too, as she sacrifices her life to keep his identity secret. Kevin Langan as Timur impresses too (as he had done in Act I). He has an oaken authority yet a touching venerable vulnerability as well. The final sequence in which the steeliness of Turandot's resolve is at last broken by Calaf's passion, and the warmth of his kiss, is stage managed well - as is the celebratory ending as Turandot declares the name of the stranger to be Love.

Runnicles brings out all the barbarity, passion, romance, and comedy in Puccini's score together with all its exotic orientalisms that are so much more subtly integrated into the score than they were in Madama Butterfly. [Contrary to the denigrations of so many unsympathetic or misinformed critics, Puccini was still experimenting in Turandot, and one wonders how much more he might have achieved if he had lived longer.]

One grouse and one that has been aired on this site before in connection with ArtHaus Musik's DVDs. We need more detailed mid-act, mid-scene links from the menus please. It's fine having just the Acts and Scenes as separate cues on a first viewing, but afterwards viewers will, more often than not, want to access specific arias. Audio CDs have such access facilities - why can't these DVDs?

Ian Lace

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