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A Seductive Nightmare

State Theatre
11/19/2019 -  & November 21, 23, 26, 28, 30, December 2, 4, 6, 2019
Giacomo Puccini: Turandot
Lise Lindstrom (Turandot), Walter Fraccaro (Calaf), Karah Son (Liù), Richard Anderson (Timur), Christopher Hillier (Ping), Virgilio Marino (Pang), John Longmuir (Pong), Graeme Macfarlane (Emperor), Andrew Moran (Mandarin), Leah Thomas (Handmaiden 1), Katherine Wiles (Handmaiden 2), Dean Bassett (Prince of Persia), Opera Australia Dancers
Opera Australia Chorus, Opera Australia Children’s Chorus, Anthony Hunt (Chorus Master), Orchestra Victoria, Christian Badea (Conductor)
Graeme Murphy (Director), Kim Walker (Revival Director), Kristian Fredrikson (Set & Costume Designer), Graeme Murphy (Choreographer), John Drummond Montgomery (Lighting Designer)

W. Fraccaro, L. Lindstrom, G. Macfarlane (© Jeff Busby)

Australian Choreographer/Director Graeme Murphy first staged Turandot for Opera Australia (OA) in 1990 and the frequent revivals and scheduled nine performances in this Melbourne Spring Season are testament to the popularity of the show. There is a vibrancy and freshness to the production which tells Puccini’s sometimes problematic story as a grim fantasy nightmare, threaded with images of bloodlust, hatred and mob frenzy. Overall, the production is brilliantly colourful, set against austere and threatening blackness.

OA populates Murphy’s vision with a massive chorus augmented by many supernumeraries, an expansive children’s chorus and a bevy of dances, flag-bearers and muscular sword-carriers attending the executioner. The stage is immense and with the expanded orchestra pit attests to the enormity of Murphy’s vision for the piece as a visual spectacle of ever-changing patterns mesmeric in their intensity.

There is a fairy-tale quality to the story-telling from the opening scenes when attendants haul away gigantic white fans which screen the stage. This imagery reappears throughout with dancers using similar fans, sometimes in black at moments of the direst threats of violence. The denouement is brought about framed by the closure of the fans as one would put aside a story book. This is a highly effective technique as it aids suspension of belief as well as assisting the more troublesome elements of the plot such as Turandot’s transformation following so closely on the suicide of Liù.

The design by the late Kristian Fredrikson is a monumental work of art in itself. Against textured black walls, screens, lattices, masks and fans loom over a cavernous space at floor level. The chorus, Timur and Liù are costumed in peasant browns and greys, the court attendants in white, black or blood red, the courtiers Ping, Pang and Pong as monstrous versions of Chinese Opera villains, the Emperor as a hovering golden vision in a billowing robe far above the crowd and finally, Turandot herself in searing white and silver; the supreme “ice princess”. Visually, this is a stunning achievement, with one of the most striking aspects being the realisation of John Drummond Montgomery’s lighting design. Against the darkness of the set, though veils of smoke haze, he fires colours to suggest times of day, the billowing waves of the sea, the rampant bloodlust of the mob outside the Palace and the aloof iciness of the terrible central character.

Romanian conductor Christian Badea continues his much admired relationship with OA, returning to this opera following the 2015 Sydney season. His reading of the score is subtle and evenly paced. There are darkly threatening elements underlying much of the accompaniment and dashes of brilliant brightness during some of the orchestral interludes which Murphy uses to expand the role of the dancers. He drew from Orchestra Victoria a glorious performance of light and shade, triumph and despair. They were greeted with justly deserved acclaim at each entrance and the final curtain.

As Calaf, Italian tenor Walter Fraccaro gave a convincing portrait of the strong-minded prince. He has lost everything and now values his own life less than the allure of the Princess; he created from the outset a sense of a man capable of great passion and urgent desires. The extensive and difficult Act One recitatives were handled with restraint followed with a “Non piangere Liù” of lilting softness and tender emotions. His acting during the harrowing Riddle Scene had us believe he truly struggled to find answers pressured by the demoniac Turandot. It is however the delivery of “Nessun dorma” against which his performance will be measured and Mr. Fraccaro has a silvery upper register which commands attention, highlighting the indomitable nature of the character he creates.

Melbourne last heard American dramatic soprano Lise Lindstrom as Brünnhilde in the 2016 revival of the Ring Cycle when she dazzled with her dynamic stage presence and formidable vocal capabilities. As the “Ice Princess” she is riveting. She met with apparent ease the huge demands of “In questa reggia” depicting Turandot’s implacable ties to the historic tragedy which motivates her. In a powerhouse performance augmented by the towering costume and set high on a moving rostrum, Ms. Lindstrom held the audience in pin-drop silence as she sought to condemn her suitor. Her exceptional acting abilities dominated this act. She achieved great contrast in the second aria, “Figlio del cielo” as she resorted to emotional manipulation when her riddles had been answered. We saw developed in the short span of Act Two, a complex portrait of nightmarish complexity and irresistibility.

Korean soprano Karah Son gave a heartfelt interpretation of Liù. She has a powerful vocal range and threw herself into the role with utter conviction. The audience greeted her with massive approval at the final curtain. Similarly well-received were the three courtiers: the production having emphasized the sometimes comic, bustlingly bureaucratic but always threatening elements in these characters.

An augmented Opera Australia Chorus and Children’s Chorus were dominant throughout the performance. They rarely left the stage and ranged from mob hysteria in Act One to the triumphal declaration of the new age in Franco Alfano’s approximation of Puccini’s vision in the Finale. They worked hard vocally and physically to provide a constant background to the central action.

This is a visually splendid production by Opera Australia, worthy of the revival on many levels. The singing is first rate and the capacity, youthful audience received it with great enthusiasm.

Gregory Pritchard



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