Turandot — Washington National Opera

Created by the Royal Opera House in 1984, with the current WNO director
Placido Domingo as Calaf and Gwyneth Jones in the title role, the production
has since been revived there fifteen times, staged over fifty times by opera
houses around the world, and celebrates its 25th season this year. With all
due respect to the original cast, this unprecedented success has nothing to
do with them, but rather with the interpretive genius of the director Andrei
Şerban, and the fantastic inventiveness of the set and costume designer
Sally Jacobs, whose original ideas were presented last night at the WNO

Şerban’s Turandot is staged: literally staged, as the
opera is played out in a traditional Chinese theater, with the chorus
occupying the galleries as it comments and participates in the action. The
theater is decorated by gigantic masks, representing the heads of
Turandot’s slain suitors. The characters are also masked (most also
wear a white-face make-up, creating a mask-over-mask effect), their gestures
deliberate and stylized. The colors are vibrant, with the crimson reds
dominating. The emperor’s golden throne, lowered from the ceiling to
hover above the crowd in Acts 2 and 3, is a striking effect, and the
sword-wielding female dancers in white masks are so chilling, they are
downright creepy.

Sabina-Cvilak-(fore)-as-Liu.gifSabina Cvilak (fore) as Liu, Maria Guleghina (back) as Turandot

The opening night was the usual spectacle of tuxes and gowns. My husband
really liked the live Terracotta Warrior in the lobby; I thought it was,
perhaps, a tad over the top. There were inevitable first-night kinks; and no,
I am not talking about an unidentified heavy object crashing backstage
half-way through Turandot’s opening aria, which all those present have
been determined to forget. The kinks concerned the issues of balance and
timing, as the conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson tried to keep various sections of
the large orchestra, chorus, and soloists in a perfect synchronicity required
by Puccini’s famously complex score. The first act in particular
occasionally felt like a gigantic house of cards, shaking slightly, just on
the verge of collapse. Thankfully, it never quite did, and as the performance
progressed, the tremors mostly subsided, save for only an occasional

Argentine tenor Dario VolontÈ as Calaf hit every note; he demonstrated the
fiery metallic timbre, and the alternatively aggressive and brooding
personality essential for his character. Yet, his voice had no lyricism, no
warmth, and most importantly, no sustaining power — at least not last
night — that would have allowed the listener time to appreciate all
those head-spinning highs before they sputtered and died like wet Chinese
fireworks. His Act 3 piËce de resistance, “Nessun dorma”, was so
rushed that the orchestra had trouble keeping up. There was no
cantilena, no luxurious lingering on the final
“Vincero!”, and consequently, Turandot’s most
glorious moment and one of Puccini’s best-known tunes, probably for the
first time in its history, evaporated without even a smattering of

Act-I_WNO-Turandot-09_cr.gifScene from Act I

The first applause of the night belonged to Slovenian soprano Sabina
Cvilak as Li˘, and deservedly so. Her tiny, brittle figure, dwarfed by the
scenery and the other characters, was an embodiment of Puccini’s
fragile, tragic heroine, the most human character in Turandot (in a
stroke of directorial inventiveness, Li˘ is never masked). And the vocal
interpretation was spot-on: pure, crystalline highs; easy, unforced delivery;
power to soar above the orchestra at will, but exercised sparingly, in
preference to the heart-breaking pianissimo that somehow,
miraculously, was perfectly audible (kudos here also to Ms Wilson for her
sensitive conducting).

There could have been no greater contrast between Ms Cvilak’s Li˘
and Princess Turandot as presented by celebrated Russian dramatic soprano
Maria Guleghina. Here, everything was the opposite: tall, imposing figure;
stylized kabuki gestures; earth-shattering power of the voice that waited
until the opera’s finale to drop below fortissimo and was
meanwhile so intimidating, one barely noticed that it was almost impossible
to discern the words that came out of Ms Guleghina’s mouth. Like the
“citizens of Peking,” we simply submitted to the iron will of the
Daughter of Heaven, and waited for precise instructions from her Mandarin.

Norman-Shankle,-Nathan-Herf.gifNorman Shankle, Nathan Herfindal, Yingxi Zhang as Ping, Pang and Pong

The Mandarin, Ukrainian Okeskandr Pushniak, was acceptable if not at all
intimidating in his tiny part, and was much more interesting to look at than
to hear, clad as he was in one of Sally Jacobs’ fabulously colorful
creations. Much better — a highlight of the evening, in fact —
were Ping, Pang, and Pong (Nathan Herfindahl, Norman Shankle, and Yingxi
Zhang, respectively), who garnered accolades for their nice comic timing, and
delivering strong vocal performances while endlessly moving, dancing, and
literally doing cartwheels around the stage. Indeed, the choreography created
by Kate Flatt for their parts and throughout Turandot proved to be
one of the strongest elements of the production. Particularly interesting was
the fluid continuity of stylized gestures and movements that all performers
shared. Blurring the boundaries between the soloists, the chorus, and the
dancers, the technique delivered a stunningly unified visual effect.

This unity was clearly the stage director’s goal, realized with the
support of Jacobs’ designs, Flatt’s choreography, and F. Mitchell
Dana’s lighting. For this alone, it is worth seeing Andrei
Şerban’s magnificent interpretation of the Puccini classic
— now, at 25, a classic in its own right.

Olga Haldey

image_description=Dario Volonte as Calaf, Maria Guleghina as Turandot [Photo by Karin Cooper courtesy of Washington National Opera]
product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Turandot
product_by=Princess Turandot: Maria Guleghina (May 16, 19, 21, 24m, 27), Sylvie Valayre (May 30, Jun 1, 4); Calaf: DarÌo VolontÈ (May 16, 19, 21, 24m), Franco Farina (May 27, 30, Jun 1, 4); Li˘: Sabina Cvilak (May 16, 19, 21, 24m), Maija Kovalevska (May 27, 30, Jun 1, 4); Timur: Morris Robinson; Ping: Nathan Herfindahl; Pang: Norman Shankle; Pong: Yingxi Zhang; The Mandarin: Oleksandr Pushniak; Emperor Altoum: Robert Baker; Prince of Persia: Seong Won Nam. Conductor: Keri-Lynn Wilson (May 16, 19, 21, 24, 27, 30, Jun 1). Pl·cido Domingo (Jun 4). Director: Andrei ?erban.
product_id=Above: Dario Volonte as Calaf, Maria Guleghina as Turandot

All photos by Karin Cooper courtesy of Washington National Opera