Turandot – Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

OA Turandot photo by Prudence UptonIt’s not every tenor who gets rewarded with a shower of fireworks when he hits the money-note in Nessun dorma. Riccardo Massi did at this performance of Turandot, and he deserved it because he sang the aria magnificently.

It’s not every soprano who has to sing her big aria perched precariously on a small platform thirty metres above the stage. Dragana Radakovic did, looking as imperious as an ice princess should, while singing superbly.

And it’s not every Emperor who gets to make his entrance suspended high above his audience in a huge throne. David Lewis did, and he certainly was very impressive, as was Gennadi Dubinsky as the Mandarin who was flown in by crane on a tiny platform.

These are just some of the memorable moments in a spellbinding production in which memorable moments come thick and fast, even on a night when the weather refused to co-operate. Despite the difficult conditions caused by the wind and rain, which, while uncomfortable for the audience huddled beneath their plastic ponchos, and no doubt, very difficult for the large cast who had to perform in voluminous costumes and negotiate large set pieces on the wet, raked stage, the production still managed to enthral, due as much to the compelling performances of the cast, as to the continually unrolling spectacle.

While Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng’s production offers plenty of spectacle with well-presented mass movement sequences,  generous use of beautiful video projections, a fire-spouting dragon, fireworks and the huge pagoda which continually changes colour to suit the mood of the action, he also carefully focusses the human aspect, so that the execution of the Persian prince, and the suicide of Liu in particular become stunning moments, as does the eventual capitulation of Turandot to Calif.

Shi-Zheng also choreographed the sequences for the large troupe of dancers for which his use of warrior-like movements for the men, and graceful traditional Chinese classical movements for the women, brought an agreeable sense of authenticity to the production.

Riccardo Massi is an impressively heroic figure as Prince Calaf, prepared to risk all to achieve his goal of winning the princess, Turandot. Costumed in red velvet robes and leather armour, he sings magnificently and recklessly commands the stage. A real action hero who ignores commands, requests and advice in his quest to conquer the ice princess.

Perhaps however he might have shown a little more sympathy for the tragic Liu who, in an effort to deflect attention from him snatches his dagger and uses it to commit suicide. Following which Calif calmly retrieves the dagger, wipes it on his thigh and returns it to its scabbard.

Making her Australian debut, Serbian soprano, Dragana Radakovic brings a luscious voice and glamorous presence to the role of the ruthless princess who spends her time composing impossible questions which her suitors must answer correctly or be put to death. Radakovic also wins brownie points for her bravery in fearlessly coping with the previously-mentioned platform, then descending to stage level via a dodgy looking set of steps. Her reluctant acquiescence to Calaf’s persistent overtures is charmingly portrayed.

Hyeseoung Kwon is also superb as the love-sick Liu, who gives up her life to save Calaf. Apart from singing gloriously, she manages to imbue her character with a quiet dignity which beautifully captures the despair and hopelessness of her situation. Conal Coad, as Timur, Calaf’s blind father, superbly assists her in realising this characterisation.

John Longmuir, Benjamin Rasheed and Luke Gabbedy, costumed in outrageously huge robes bring a welcome touch of levity to the proceedings as the comic trio, Pong, Pang and Ping.

At this performance the sound system took some time to settle on the correct levels, but once this was achieved the balance between the singers and Maestro Brian Castles-Onion’s lush Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra was a joy to experience.

Handa’s Opera on Sydney Harbour are a very special and unique experience. On a balmy night it is sheer magic, but even when the weather is inclement, as it was on this occasion, that, curiously, seems to add a further frisson to the experience.

Purists might curl their lips at the fireworks and gratuitous special effects, but this production of Turandot,  the fifth in the season, staged as it is on Sydney Harbour, offers a truly unique and unforgettable opera experience, the like of which can be experienced nowhere else on the planet. Do yourself a favour and don’t miss the opportunity if you can help it.

Conductor: Brian Castles-Onion Director / Choreographer: Chen Shi-Zheng Set and Costume Design: Dan Potra Lighting Design: Scott Zielinski Video Design: Leigh Sachwitz Sound Design: Tony David Cray Opera Australia Chorus, Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra

Turandot – Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour
Fleet Steps – Mrs Macquaries Point, Sydney
Performance: Tuesday 22 March 2016 (media preview / dress rehearsal)
Season continues to 24 April 2016
Bookings: www.opera.org.au

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

Image: Turandot on Sydney Harbour – photo by Prudence Upton

Review: Bill Stephens