Reviewed by Judy Richter
When it comes to visual splendor, it would be difficult to surpass the David Hockney-designed production of Puccini's final opera, Turandot , which opened the San Francisco Opera's 76th season Sept. 11. With boldly colored costumes by Ian Falconer and complementary lighting by Thomas Munn, this production is a marvel of swirling abstract design, much of it in primary colors.
When it comes to vocal splendor, however, the sound of the production doesn't match the look. Except for Canadian tenor Richard Margison as Calaf, most of the singing is adequate but not inspired. Margison, however, delivers an assured, ringing performance. His acting skills are limited, but his singing is so fervent and appealing that any dramatic shortcomings can be overlooked.
In the case of Gabriele Schnaut as Princess Turandot, the singing doesn't come up to adequate. Her performance is marred not only by limited acting ability but also by faulty vocal technique. Her voice is strong enough for this demanding role, but it has a harsh edge with little emotional shading. Grotesque red makeup around her eyes exaggerates her tendency to roll or widen her eyes to show feeling.
The rest of the cast fares better than she. Bulgarian soprano Svetla Vassileva shows some sensitivity in enacting Liù, but her singing, while accurate, doesn't evoke the young slave's love of and ultimate sacrifice for Calaf. Italian bass Francesco Ellero D'Artegna as Timur likewise doesn't evoke much sympathy. Baritone Earle Patriarco as Ping, tenor Dennis Petersen as Pang and tenor Matthew Lord as Pong are entertaining, but they don't always blend well. American tenor Joseph Frank sounds suitably aged as the emperor. Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea has only a small role as a mandarin, but he sings with a power, richness and lyricism reminiscent of a budding Samuel Ramey.
Ian Robertson's SFO Chorus acquits itself well enough though the set hampers movement and challenges stage director Garnett Bruce's ingenuity. The chorus's soaring song to the moon is especially well done. The scene preceding the prince of Persia's execution includes not only fine choral singing but also powerful staging with five burly men turning a huge whetstone as the executioner sharpens his sword, filling the air with sparks and smoke. Italian conductor Marco Armiliato leads the SFO Orchestra with urgency and sensitivity.
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