OA 19 Turandot - photo by Keith SaundersIt may be nearly thirty years old but Graeme Murphy’s mesmerizing staging of Puccini’s last opera, remains a jewel in Opera Australia’s current repertoire. From the very first moments when huge fans open to reveal Murphy’s swirling vision of an ancient China which exists only in his fertile imagination, one is inexorably drawn into a world in which only the ruler’s head can be seen atop his mountain of robes, and where a princess composes riddles to baffle her suitors, who have their heads lopped off by muscular swordsmen when they fail to come up with the right answers.

Murphy’s vision was shared by Kristian Fredrikson who designed imposing settings and lavishly draped costumes which perfectly compliment the choreographed undulating movement of the huge chorus, providing a succession of beautifully composed stage pictures, which frame the action and focus the attention on the principal players, connecting with and subtly enhancing the effect of Puccini’s gloriously melodic music.

First seen in 1990, and now meticulously revived by Kim Walker, and superbly lit by John Drummond Montgomery, this production makes great use of hand held props such as large fans for the dancers, strips of blood-red silk and hand-held screens to partition areas as the ensemble move around the stage. Even the children’s choir snaking around the stage in tight formation for their folk song, and the clever use of large individual mats held by Ping, Pang and Pong, stylishly interpreted by Christopher Hillier, Virgilio Marino and John Longmuir, become striking visual elements.

As the ice princess, Turandot, Amber Wagner is an imposing presence, especially when perched high above the ensemble on a tall platform. Her thrilling lustrous voice soars effortlessly above the full force of the orchestra and chorus. Later in the opera, when she descends from the platform, she achieves the near-impossible by making Turandot’s capitulation to Calaf at the end of the opera, believable, even romantic.

Equally impressive is Andeka Gorrotxategi as Calaf, the Tartar prince determined to win the love of Turandot. Matinee idol handsome, and possessing a gloriously clear, warmly burnished tenor voice, he eschews the usual operatic posturing, to present an assured Calaf who revels in Turandot’s frustration as he offers the correct answers to her riddles, and is unwavering in his resolve to claim his prize no matter what obstacles are placed in his way. His carefully phrased Nessun dorma sung standing amid a sea of undulating silk waves was quite simply breathtaking.

Mariana Hong breaks hearts with her beautifully sung and acted performance as the tragic slave girl, Liu, who harbours a secret love for Calaf, and is prepared to die rather than betray him. It says much for the effectiveness of Gorrotxategi’s performance as Calaf that the audience is able to forgive his response to her death.

There is also superb singing and acting among the supporting roles. Richard Anderson brings both dignity and pathos to the role of Timur, Calaf’s exiled father. Graeme Macfarlane is suitably majestic as the Emperor Altoum, Dean Bassett is a dignified Prince of Persia and Andrew Moran makes a fine mandarin.

Maestro, Christian Badea, kept impressive control on his huge musical resources, ensuring a glorious sound throughout with perfect balance between the orchestra and chorus while remaining carefully attentive to the needs of his soloists.

This production is a masterpiece and a reminder of how stunning opera can be even without the technical whizbangery now available. As one audience member was heard to say as he left the theatre, “This is what keeps me coming back to opera!”

Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney
Performance: Tuesday 15 January 2019 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 30 March 2019
Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com

For more information, visit: www.opera.org.au for details.

Image: Amber Wagner as Turandot, Andeka Gorrotxategi as Calàf and ensemble in Opera Australia’s 2019 production of Turandot at the Sydney Opera House – photo by Keith Saunders

Review: Bill Stephens OAM