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Lackluster Season Opener with Turandot

San Francisco
San Francisco, Opera
09/11/1998 -  and 17*, 20, 22, 25, 30 September, 3 October, 1998
Giacomo Puccini: Turandot
Gabriele Schnaut (Turandot), Richard Margison (Calaf), Svetla Vassileva (Liu), Francesco Ellero D'Artegna (Timur), Earle Patriarco (Ping), Dennis Petersen (Pang), Matthew Lord (Pong), Joseph Frank (Emperor Altoum), John Reylea (A Mandarin), Keith Perry (Prince of Persia)
San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Marco Armiliato (conductor)

Despite being the opening night production for the San Francisco Opera, Puccini's final masterpiece, Turandot, seems to have been almost an afterthought with all the attention being diverted to the World Premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire a week later. Inadequate casting, uninspired staging and unpolished conducting made this one of the least noteworthy openings in recent years.

In its third appearance at the War Memorial Opera House, the flaws in David Hockney's celebrated production are more apparent than ever. While the intense reds, greens and blues are as vibrant as ever and the oddly-angles set pieces as dynamic as ever, the lack of adequate stage floor space and a problematic first entrance for Turandot herself in the second act hampered director Garnett Bruce's ability to provide this production with a staging that responded adequately to Puccini's vibrant score. Bruce capitulated quickly in the face of the challenges and contented himself with shuffling the chorus on an off at the right time and getting them out of the way of the principals. But he came no where near maximize the potential of the San Francisco Opera Chorus and their ability to be involved in and contribute to the dramatic situations in Turandot. His idea of staging the large choral sequence in Act I consisted primarily of stock arm gestures and movements en mass toward the footlights and then away.

As in previous stagings, Hockney's second act set provides what has to be the most anticlimactic entrance for the princess possible. After tumblers, guards, mandarins and ministers all proceed the emperor down a lengthy zigzag ramp from upstage left to stage center, Turandot herself, proceed by a few petal-scattering women, enters ignominiously downstage right among the populace as if she had just come from market. Fortunately, this Turandot, Gabriele Schnaut, has a regal bearing and strong enough presence to compensate for her unfortunate entrance. Schnaut's physical presence is one of her strongest assets as the ice princess. Vocally, she is somewhat less well suited to the role. With a harsh unwieldy tone and laboring to sustain notes in the upper range of an admittedly high-lying role, Schnaut sounded uncomfortable, particularly in her "In questa reggia". Having to work so hard to produce the tones, inflection, phrasing and even diction fell by the wayside, leaving an undeveloped characterization and unmoving performance.

Richard Margison's strengths and weaknesses as Calaf were the reverse of Schnaut's. Margison has a steady, bright, if somewhat undistinctive tone with ringing high B flats, B's and C's. But his calm, placid stage demeanor did little to suggest a prince consumed by passion for Turandot. Thanks to exposure in the mass media, the moment he began "Nessun dorma", a buzz of recognition rippled through the audience as if finally the moment they has been waiting for had arrived. Margison gave a carefully built rendition but nowhere did one sense Calaf's sense of reckless abandon and utter confidence that had driven him to this point.

In her San Francisco Opera debut, Svetla Vassileva was a touching, lightweight Liu. Bruce's staging failed to establish her character in the first scene. When the blind Tartar king, Timur, falls, rather than rushing to his aid while pleading for help from the crowd, Vassileva was left standing ten feet away looking on. It was an awkward, incomprehensible moment and a lost opportunity to show Liu's courage and devotion. Vassileva's vocal gifts and physical presence were well suited to the role and she gave an affecting account of Liu's two arias, though her piano singing sounded unsupported. The trio of ministers, Ping, Pang and Pong appeared to have been left up to their own devices as far as characterizations and the three of them headed off in the direction of broad physical comedy getting further and further down that path as the opera progressed. The three singers, Earle Patriarco, Dennis Petersen and Matthew Lord, respectively, contributed some of the evening's best singing in their scene that opens the second act. But again, the lack of an adequate directorial presence left the scene foundering dramatically. Francesco Ellero D'Artegna gave a bigger-life account of the role of Timur, entirely in keeping with the scale of Hockney's production and supported with a robust tone and dynamic presence. One never doubted this king's ability to endure the hardships he had experienced. Joseph Frank gave a characterful account of the Emperor Altoum, his vocal tone and timbre expertly scaled to create the wizen old ruler. John Reylea's mandarin once again showed this to be a singer of great promise with a big rich voice and developing stage presence. From this listener's seat off to the side and tucked under the box-level overhang, it would be unfair to comment on the balance either between sections of the orchestra or between the stage and the orchestra. The acoustics in that spot made the percussion section sound out of control, the brass dominating and the strings and woodwinds all but non-existent. (The overhang even makes the conversations between certain orchestra members audible though not understandable.)

But conductor Marco Armiliato seemed responsive and supportive of the singers, providing them with a cushion of sound without overwhelming them and letting loose with an orchestral flood of sound only when dramatically suitable. One can only wonder what the opening night audience must have thought after paying top dollar for a performance of this level. General director Lotfi Mansouri's penchant for "Hollywood Casting" (casting singers for their physical qualities first and vocal suitability second) and then failing to back it up with strong enough directorial support leaves both the musical and dramatic aspects of opera sadly lacking. The result is this kind of disappointing, provincial Turandot, one that does the company no credit and the opera a disservice.

Kelly Snyder



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