The gift that keeps on giving, Graeme Murphy’s 1990 production of Turandot is grand opera at the pinnacle of artistic collaboration. Opera Australia’s revival sees the lavish work make a welcome Melbourne return, not seen locally since 2012.
At a time when opera design is transitioning to LCD screens, Kristian Fredrikson’s inventive scenery is deliciously tactile, achieving a fluid dynamism that seamlessly complements Murphy’s direction and choreography. The success of Murphy and his collaborators lies in their respect for Puccini’s work; there is an abundance of spectacle, but none just for its own sake.
Representation of world cultures on stage is increasingly becoming fraught with peril. Murphy’s vision, realised by Fredrikson, is of a fabled China of myth and legend. Rites and rituals unfold with elegant pageantry, representing a broad concept of ancient times rather than any sort of specific realism. The simple plot, which would be suitable for a children’s storybook (save for the splashes of blood), supports this setting, the end result being a fantastical piece of adult entertainment on par with Game of Thrones.
Revival director Kim Walker is well placed to recreate Murphy’s work, having a long association with the production. The central drama lands with weight and authority. Assistant choreographer Tim Farrar keeps the teeming crowds moving with pulsing waves of energy, highly effective in its deceptive simplicity. Elegant court dancers bring additional stage beauty. A crack team of Mechanicals, all in black, give surreptitious support to special effects, such as the intricate choreography for Ping, Pang and Pong’s trios in the first scene of act two.
Crucial to the success of the stage magic is the lighting design of John Drummond Montgomery, who contrasts the wondrous glow of stage objects with an inky blackness disappearing to the rear of stage. The transition to the second scene of act two and the transition to the finale both owe a large proportion of their spectacle to the exquisite use of lighting.
With the exacting choreography placing high demands on their stage presence, the Opera Australia Chorus nonetheless sings the complex choral score with a reliable brilliance of sound. The Moon Chorus (“Gira la cote”) is an especial highlight.
Maestro Christian Badea brings out the best in Orchestra Victoria. With the State Theatre orchestra pit in its larger arrangement, the beautifully balanced music fills the space with sumptuous sound.
American soprano Lise Lindstrom, acclaimed locally as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, commands the stage with an imperiousness all the more effective for Lindstrom’s understated performance; she brings the stunning singing and icy stare and then simply trusts the music and the production, to great success. Her high C’s ringing out over the mighty chorus and orchestra, Lindstrom gives another memorable Melbourne performance.
Walter Fraccaro brings a suitably masculine presence to Calaf. Although his overall performance is let down by his static, uninspired acting, the strength of his tenor voice rings out grandly, delivering a stirring rendition of crowd favourite “Nessun Dorma.”
The clear audience favourite on opening night, South Korean soprano Karah Son sings with sublime sweetness, colouring her vocals with dear Liù’s plaintive cries of sorrow and despair.
Working together with polished flair, John Longmuir, Virgilio Marino and Christopher Hillier bring Pong, Pang and Ping to vibrant life. Within the evenly matched trio, Hillier seizes the opportunity to stand out as Grand Chancellor Ping.
Graeme Macfarlane gives a sturdy presence to the Emperor, singing out grandly from his stage position high overhead; unaccompanied passages display particularly strong musicality. Richard Anderson engages the audience’s sympathy as noble Timur, singing the role with judiciously tempered power. As the imposing figure of the Mandarin, Andrew Moran sets a high standard in the opera’s opening scene, conveying ample character from beneath his embellished make-up and lavish robes.
Turandot plays selected dates at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 6 December 2019.
Opening night of Turandot was dedicated to the memory of Johanna Puglisi.
Footnote: Turandot marks the first time that Opera Australia has used small, free programs rather than glossy souvenir programs at the State Theatre in Melbourne.
Photos: Jeff Busby