Wed, Jun

LA Opera Triumphs with Turandot


GELFAND’S WORLD - Perhaps I might sarcastically subtitle this comment A Tale of Two Cities. Or maybe just point out that it's not about Meet Cute.  Let's just say that Puccini's Turandot, available for one more night at the LA. Opera, is a triumph, whereas a several years' ago performance at the San Francisco Opera went flat. 

There are a couple of problems for any opera company in trying to do Turandot. The first is that this was Puccini's last attempt at opera writing (having made a name for himself with some greatest of all time pieces like La Boheme and Tosca and Madame Butterfly). This guy could write tunes, and he could fill seats. But Puccini died before completing Turandot. What he left was a lot, but it lacked the great Puccini ending. It was left for others to attempt to finish it, and there is one version that is now the accepted Puccini-plus-the-other-guy completed version. 

The other problem for the modern opera company is that Luciano Pavarotti made the third act aria Nessun Dorma into his concert signature piece, and it is next to impossible for any human to match the Luciano concert touch when translated to the wide-open spaces of a major opera house. You can get a sense of the Pavarotti sound from his Three Tenors performance which you can find here. The aria got to be so defining that one Korean filmmaker built a whole movie (called My Paparotti) around a student performance that you can hear here

Anyway, Turandot is a full-fledged opera with a protagonist -- a prince on the run from a usurper -- and sympathetic characters in the form of his newly re-found father and a servant girl who secretly loves him. the plot is a bit weird for modern sensibilities, but for the sake of this View from the Balcony series, let's consider: The daughter of China's emperor is the princess Turandot. She hates men because many, many generations previously, her ancestor (another princess) was conquered and ravished and died at the hands of some bad guy. The Turandot revenge on men is to offer her hand in marriage to anyone who can answer her 3 riddles. If you get it wrong, you die. So far in the year of the opera, 13 men have tried and 13 have been executed. 

Turandot is described by everyone else in the cast as cold and cruel, and what we see early on bears that out. 

The opera actually gets to be fun (at least a little) when the executioner comes in and sharpens his sword on a giant whirling stone. Sparks fly. Literally. And then the Prince of Persia, who did not solve the previous 3 riddles, is marched through, makes a ritualistic plea for mercy, and then is marched right out again to meet the blade. 

Let's agree that this was not Puccini's best plot. The title character is one-dimensional until the last 5 minutes or so, the male protagonist is a bit simplistic in his own way, and a lot of loose ends are wrapped up in very short order in the last act. 

In other words, for this opera to be that masterpiece of masterpieces that it could have been, Puccini would have had to live a little longer and the plot lines would have had to be sketched in. It should have been a longer opera.



Aw well, there is stunning music and wonderful arias, and this opera company was not afraid to fill the stage with the chorus, fill the orchestra pit with instruments, and play LOUD. It works to stunning effect at the end, and the audience could barely wait to jump up for a sustained standing ovation. 

Here is how critic Jim Farber described the production

Back when I was passing through San Francisco and stopped to see their performance of Turandot, it was a bad night for the tenor. When he did Nessun Dorma, there wasn't much volume, and the audience reacted a bit negatively, with hardly a smatter of applause. In Los Angeles the other night, Russell Thomas carried the night successfully, delivering the aria and receiving rousing applause. 

In keeping with this season's now-established tradition, the L.A. Opera production featured a nearly equal match of American-born and foreign-born singers. In the leading roles, we heard Angela Meade as Turandot, Russell Thomas as Calaf, and Morris Robinson as Timur, these coming from Centralia, Washington, Miami, and Atlanta, respectively. Only Guanqun Yu as Liu was from Shandong, China. The semi-comedic trio of Ping, Pang, and Pong included two native born Americans and one Korean from Seoul. 

What was not there was a contingent of Italian and Spanish singers who might previously have dominated the stage in any pre-Covid year. 

It is an interesting evolution that is worth watching. 

And up in Hollywood, the Fringe is coming. 

The Hollywood Fringe Festival is beginning, with a preview week and then an extended run. You can get more information here

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)