TORONTO – There was a time, years ago, when the notion of a minimalist Turandot would have been shrugged off as an absurdity. Perhaps it is a measure of how far into the 21st century we have progressed that the Robert Wilson edition of Puccini’s unfinished masterpiece, given its North American premiere Sept. 28 in the Four Seasons Centre by the Canadian Opera Company, could leave the exasperated operagoer both sorry for what it was and thankful for what it was not.
Happily, updating is not really Wilson’s thing. Though essentially free of properties through the first two acts, the color-saturated set could be taken for Beijing in legendary times, and costuming (with a significant exception to be discussed below) was identifiably of exotic inspiration. A few of the breast-plated guards might have walked into the Franco Zeffirelli production at the Metropolitan Opera without attracting much attention.
Where the staging departed radically from tradition (to say nothing of the intentions of the composer) was in its rigorous avoidance of anything resembling natural movement or real-time human interaction. Characters moved their arms robotically, according to the Wilson playbook, and sometimes stepped forward or back. Mostly, they stood bolt-upright and stared blankly at the audience. The purpose of what motion there was (including the occasional sliding of screens across the stage) appeared to be to keep the opera one tantalizing degree away from the minimalist nirvana of perfect nothingness.
Needless to say, the onstage anti-narrative did warfare with the libretto, and absurdities accumulated quickly. Timur did not fall to the ground, despite Liù’s testimony to the contrary. Calaf did not trouble himself to look at the “divine beauty” for whom he was soon to risk everything. Nor did the prince strike the gong, there being no gong to strike. (He did flick his wrist three times, perhaps as a subtle expression of scorn for the opera.) There was some ritualized action during the torture of Liù, but the unfortunate girl did not stab herself. Indeed, she left the stage on her own two feet.
Amid this desert of inanity, a few genuine theatrical strokes made an outsize effect. The initial entry of Turandot, on what appeared to be a diving board, was memorable in its way, as was the slow descent from on high of the Emperor (looking a little like Humpty Dumpty). The wandering of Calaf amid a tangled forest at the beginning of Act 3, while not really corresponding to any dramatic need, added welcome relief to the static presentation. Unfortunately, the same could be said of the utterly meaningless flight across the stage of a wide-winged bird in Act 1.
In any case, the critical coup de théâtre was near the end of the opera. When the icy princess — who is never embraced, much less conquered — asserts that the true name of Calaf is “love,” the prince suddenly disappears. Up to this point an abstraction, the embodiment of male arrogance turns out never really to have existed at all.
If this constituted the mandatory “subversion” of the erotic essence of the story, there was another admirably woke touch, the conversion of those unspeakable stereotypes, Ping, Pang, and Pong, into Jim, Bob, and Bill, outfitted in tight-fitting black smoking jackets and mincing around the stage like stereotypes of quite another sort. The rebranding is defended in the printed program by a member of the COC’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity Committee, who is credited as a production consultant. Whatever the ethnicity, the main function of the trio for Wilson was to distract spectators during those sequences of music that inconveniently communicate grandeur.
One interesting upside of a minimalist staging is the freedom it affords the cast and chorus to sing without much impediment. Sergey Skorokhodov applied a clear tenor of moderate strength to Calaf. His “Nessun dorma” made a big impression in part because he insinuated some reality into his stage presence despite the silly arm undulations he was required to perform and the pale costume in which he was dressed. Soprano Joyce El-Khoury managed a few similar breakthroughs as Liù.
Supporting roles were decently attended to. Adrian Timpau, Julius Ahn, and Joseph Hu can proudly add successful appearances as Jim, Bob, and Bill to their résumés. The standout, however, was Tamara Wilson in the title role. Her soprano cut brilliantly through the orchestra while remaining a beautiful thing to hear. And it should be said that minimal movement does not ill befit a character whose crucial trait is cold-heartedness.
The COC Chorus, as prepared by Sandra Horst, was a model of discipline, and the COC Orchestra, with lucid strings and noble brass, was in top form. Offstage effects were splendidly atmospheric. For the general musical excellence, we credit Carlo Rizzi, one of the Met’s regular conductors, who managed a true Puccinian synthesis of clarity, grandeur, and momentum. Subsequent performances can be confidently recommended as concert presentations.
We heard, as usual, Franco Alfano’s well-intentioned but sub-Puccinian completion. An innovation worth hazarding in Turandot might be to emulate Toscanini’s decision in the first performance of 1926 to close the opera in the midst of the third act, after the words “Liù! Poesia!,” where the composer “laid down his pen.” A quiet and ambiguous ending is in no way incompatible with modernist priorities.
This co-production, already seen in Madrid and Vilnius, will be staged eventually in Houston. We can wait.
Turandot continues at the COC through Oct. 27. For tickets and information, go here.
Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and La Scena Musicale.