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PROMS 2002

S & H International Opera Review

PUCCINI: TURANDOT, San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 7 Sept 2002 (HS)


The curtain rose on the Pamela Rosenberg era at San Francisco Opera on a familiar production with a mix of singers familiar and unfamiliar to local audiences. That's going to be one theme for the new general manager's second season at the helm, her first in which she made the big decisions on operas to do and who to perform them. Early returns are mixed, as they say in politics -- and make no mistake, plenty of politics is at play here.

Still to come later this month is the much-anticipated U.S. stage debut of Olivier Messiaen's gargantuan "Saint Francois d'Assise," which can't help but define the Rosenberg era. Meanwhile, Puccini's "Turandot" opened the season before a glittery crowd dressed to the nines. The company's own contributions were the main strengths, from Donald Runnicles' vigorous conducting of an often-splendid-sounding orchestra and chorus to all the technical work. David Hockney's bold, saturated-color sets and costumes remain a feast for the eyes. The soloists, well, that's another matter.

There was much grumbling among opera lovers in San Francisco when Rosenberg announced this season's casting decisions. Roughly half of the major roles in the 11-opera season involve company debuts. Many of them are favorites of Rosenberg's from her days as intendant of the Stuttgart Opera, which position she left to take over from Lotfi Mansouri in San Francisco. Others are familiar artists cast in unexpected roles.

One casting decision hat left some of us puzzled was the choice of Patricia Racette to sing Liu in this "Turandot." Racette is a marvelous artist, but a great Liu melts audiences' hearts with pure, golden sound, especially on those quiet, exposed, sustained notes just above the staff. Pure sound is not Racette's strength. But she is a totally believable singing actress, and her portrayal of Liu was memorable for its veracity, its sheer truth. Her final aria, "Tu, che di gel sei cinta," became a sort of mini-mad scene, as she visibly swung from steadfastness and serenity to moments of panic, exactly what a real person might have done in such a situation. Her singing remained marvelously controlled and musical throughout.

That was the high point, folks. As Turandot, the English soprano Jane Eaglen left me feeling a little queasy, and not because of her size. Except for a few awkward moments, she moved reasonably well and looked resplendent in green brocade. She is remarkable for the sheer volume of sound she can produce without it ever feeling forced. That's why she's such a special Isolde; she can sing all that music and never sound like she's pushing it. That would be perfect for Turandot except for two things. One, Turandot needs to be emphatic, even terrifying, at moments such as the climax of "In questa reggia," or the start of the riddle scene ("Straniero, ascolta."), and Eaglen doesn't muster the necessary edge. More troublesome, at least in this performance, she kept edging sharp. Some phrases were perfectly in tune, others wandered. Hence the queasiness.

As Calaf, the budding American heldentenor Jon Villars made his company debut a puzzler. Physically, he cuts a noble figure and, at times, he created exactly the right clarion sound, especially in the second-act riddle scene and the final duet. But not, curiously, in his big arias. "Non piangere Liu" went by with hardly a ripple and "Nessun dorma" periodically seemed to lose focus. I sensed some sort of vocal crisis at the end of the first act, when his climactic "Turandots" came out barely at mezzoforte, but he got it together for the latter two acts.

South American bass Alfred Reiter as Timur and German bartitone Hernan Iturralde as Ping, both of whom sang for Rosenberg in Stuttgart, made solid U.S. debuts and gave us a glimpse of Rosenberg's ear for talent. If these two are indicative of the new singers on this year's schedule, there will be a lot of polite nods but very few standing ovations. Reiter, who has been singing Titurel in Bayreuth, displayed a well-rounded, clear bass sound but not much distinctiveness. Iturralde, whose Stuttgart credits include Leporello, showed plenty of physical flair and clarity of sound but again, there was little to distinguish him from dozens of other good baritones.

Rosenberg's most significant import for this production, however, might have been director Chris Alexander. Many longtime San Francisco opera goers cast a skeptical eye on directors who try to impose their own concepts on familiar operas, and they expressed concern when Rosenberg talked of bringing in European directors to bring fresh thinking to the company's production. If Alexander is any indication, they can breathe easily. His concept was remarkably true to Puccini's. You can tell a lot about a director's approach to "Turandot" by what he does with Ping, Pang and Pong. They're clearly derived from knockabout commedia dell'arte, but they're also high-ranking ministers in a repressive government. Many directors go for the easy laughs, but Alexander managed to make all three of these characters three-dimensional, without losing their humorous bite. When they longed for their homes and a little peace, they managed to quiet the opening-night audience's whispered chattering, but they also drew laughs as they demonstrated how previous princes had been executed.

In many small gestures, Robertson added touches that enhanced the characters or the story without being overt or obvious. He even found ways to make the Turandot-Calaf conciliation mostly believable, mainly by just letting it happen and trusting the music to carry the day. (Imagine, a director that trusts the music!) It was a sound idea, especially thanks to a sweeping orchestral performance, which, especially when supported by good choral singing, can go a long toward making up for an uneven cast.

With all the crash-bang-boom of the music, it's easy for forget what a marvelous, complex score Puccini created. Runnicles brought out much of that detail in an invigorating orchestral performance that, in the end, carried the day.

Performances with this cast continue through 2 October. A second, even less familiar, cast takes a second run 27 November through 8 December with Audrey Stottler as Turandot, Antonio Nagore (S.F.O. debut) as Calaf and Norah Ansellem as Liu.

Harvey Steiman

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