Robert Wilson’s Turandot

While the music is very much Puccini’s Turandot, a regular opera fan attending the premiere of the Canadian Opera Company’s new production might have trouble recognizing it. That’s why the headline proclaims it as Robert Wilson’s Turandot.

Two words lurk in my head at the moment.

The first is kitsch. Some critics have a problem with Puccini,  his popularity, his blatant sentimentality. If you love Puccini of course, you go see Butterfly or Boheme without a trace of guilt in your pleasures, and embrace the tears he pumps out of your eyes.

Robert Wilson’s Turandot seems to be meant as an answer to the kitsch, to the jerking of your tears. You won’t cry at this production.  It’s a modern work of art, the set & singers like a colossal installation a tableau with human puppets dodging the kitsch or any excessive emotion.

The other word is orientalism. Some people find operas such as Turandot problematic in their appropriation of folk music from China, the reproduction of cultural stereotypes. While I am not sure that this opera offends anyone, it’s especially intriguing to consider what the COC gave us.

  • The characters of Ping, Pang & Pong are renamed “Jim”, “Bob” and “Bill” ostensibly to fix this problem
  • A program note explains the rationale
  • Meanwhile, Wilson gave the three singers a movement vocabulary to rival Mickey Rooney’s outrageous performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, hopping and mugging and cavorting as though they were cliché figures.

Was this meant to be done with a knowing wink at the audience? Perhaps. I did hear a few weak titters of laughter. But I suspect that the result may have been even more offensive than the original. I’m the wrong person to ask, as I’m Hungarian.

But perhaps this show is safe from any sense of kitsch, genuinely modern and therefore not guilty of appropriation.

I can only shake my head at the predicament of the COC in the modern day, and their perpetual position of apology for the sins of past generations:

  • The defects of Louis Riel that led to apologies & corrective composition
  • The sins of emperor Hadrian that led to a bizarre conclusion to the opera we saw last year about that emperor, the scourge of the Jews
  • And tonight, a program note that would apologize for Ping Pang & Pong, renaming them: even as the surtitles and sung lines continued to identify them as before.

So no it’s not the Turandot you may know if you’re a conservative opera-goer. At the end when Calaf and The Princess sing together and he supposedly kisses her, they never get close enough for anything more than perhaps a blown kiss, a gesture. And as they sing she is radiant bright red in powerful lights while he languishes in the shadows, eventually disappearing into the crowd at the end. The surtitles say that Liu dies, but it’s again some sort of gestural thing. She walks about for awhile, as indeed the chorus expresses fear that her soul will haunt them. Is she haunting them? If so she’s doing so in the company of Timur, who is still alive.

But maybe the expectations of the usual opera audience aren’t relevant, not when we saw one of the youngest audiences I’ve seen coming out for a Canadian Opera Company premiere. And that bodes well, considering that the subscription audience for most of the performing arts companies in the GTA is getting older. They embraced this production, including big applause for Wilson at the end.

Pardon me if I sound like a conservative myself.  I laid out some of this conflict in the earlier piece I wrote about Turandot (and Wilson).  The person I was sitting with was fuming about what they felt had been done to the original.

Wilson’s minimalist aesthetic has its pros and cons.

Turandot’s first appearance is electrifying, the colours and stage composition matching the big orchestral climax.

And the opening of Act II is brilliant, as Ping Pang & Pong…
(sorry but I refuse to call them by names that aren’t sung in the performance… if Ping can sing “Ola Pang Ola Pong”, that’s good enough for me!)
…make more sense of this scene than usual, even as a couple of the usual cuts were restored. Ah but then again at this moment? the opera came closest to resembling what we see in other productions, diverging hardly at all from the usual.  So thank you for that crumb Mr Wilson. It is my favourite scene of the opera.


Joseph Hu as Bill / Pong, Sergey Skorokhodov as Calaf, Julius Ahn as Bob / Pang, Adrian Timpau as Jim / Ping, in Act III of Turandot (photo: Michael Cooper)

Turandot is a messy opera about messy emotions. Wilson tidies it up considerably. The chorus stand still so that we can deal with the chorus in the abstract, and never mind if people don’t usually do that. Hey, people don’t usually sing either.  If you can buy the stylizations you’ll have a much happier experience. If you show up with stipulations & requirements, you’ll be frustrated.  No you don’t get the usual contact between characters. At times it resembles an oratorio. And I don’t say this as a consolation, but the musical side of this production is astonishingly good. You won’t hear it sung any better than this.

Tamara Wilson is in my second consecutive production where I am feeling sorry for her predicament. Just as her Desdemona was a standout in the Otello last season  (the best singer & actor onstage) so too this time.  Her vocalism is 99% of her role, as she gets very little opportunity to show us the usual character arc (so maybe I’m feeling sorry for myself? the production makes her character an even bigger mystery than usual).

Sergey Skorokhodov is a very capable Calaf, somewhat dry in tone but accurate. Again, we don’t get to see any evidence of character interaction, no opportunity to get terribly attached to our hero, as that might be too much kitsch for us to handle. No, Wilson saves us from that unhealthy sentiment.

Similarly Joyce El-Khoury sings an impeccable Liu, and David Leigh a strong Timur, even if nobody hugs or makes a real human gesture.

Adrian Timpau was a standout as Ping especially given that Wilson gave him & his cohorts (Julius Ahn as Pang, Joseph Hu as Pong) so much physical business & hopping about, in addition to some very challenging music.  They were superb throughout the evening.

To make matters even harder, conductor Carlo Rizzi is sometimes going very quickly. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it. But this is tough music, especially for the trio that opens Act II. As far as I could tell Rizzi got perfect entrances from his soloists even while at times putting the pedal to the floor.

One of the intriguing subtexts is in watching Rizzi, a brilliant musician leading this production. One wonders what he’s thinking.

The COC chorus were wonderful both onstage & off.

Turandot continues at the Four Seasons Centre until October 27th.

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