Friday, March 25, 2016

TURANDOT - Handa Opera On Sydney Harbour

Music: Giacomo Puccini. Libretto: Guiseppe Adami and Renato Simoni
Conductor: Brian Castles-Onion. Director and Choreographer: Chen Shi-Zheng. Set and Costume design: Dan Potra. Lighting Design: Scott Zielinski. Video design: Leigh Sachwitz. Sound design: Tony David Cray. Opera Australia Chorus. Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra.

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour – March 24 – April 24

Dress Rehearsal on March 22nd reviewed by Bill Stephens

It’s not every tenor who gets rewarded with a shower of fireworks when he hits the money-note in “Nessun dorma. Riccardo Massi did at this performance of “Turandot”, and he deserved it because he sang the aria magnificently.

Riccardo Massi sings "Nessun dorma" 

Photo: Hamilton Lund.

It’s not every soprano who has to sing her big aria perched precariously on a small platform thirty metres above the stage. Dragana Radakovic did, looking as imperious as an ice princess should, while singing superbly.

Dragana Radakovic - Turandot singing from her tower 
Photo: Prudence Upton

And it’s not every Emperor who gets to make his entrance suspended high above his audience in a huge throne.  David Lewis did, and he certainly was very impressive, as was Gennady Dubinsky as the Mandarin who was flown in by crane on a tiny platform.

David Lewis as the Emperor suspended above the stage - Centre 
Photo: Hamilton Lund

Gennadi Dubinsky as the Mandarin makes his entrance 

Photo: Prudence Upton

These are just some of the memorable moments in a spellbinding production in which memorable moments come thick and fast, even on a night when the weather refused to co-operate. But despite the difficult conditions caused by the wind and rain, which, while uncomfortable for the audience huddled beneath their plastic ponchos, and no doubt, very difficult for the large cast who had to perform in voluminous costumes, and negotiate large set pieces on the wet, raked stage, the production still managed to enthral, due as much to the compelling performances of the cast, as to the continually unrolling spectacle.

While Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng’s production offers plenty of spectacle with well-choreographed mass movement sequences, generous use of atmospheric video projections, a fire-spouting dragon,  fireworks and a huge pagoda which continually changes colour to suit the mood of the action,he also carefully focusses the human aspect, so that the execution of the Persian prince and the suicide of Liu in particular become stunning moments, as does the eventual capitulation of Turandot to Prince Calaf.

Shi-Zheng also choreographed the sequences for the large troupe of dancers for which his use of warrior-like movements for the men, and graceful traditional Chinese classical movements for the women, brought an agreeable sense of authenticity to the production. 

Dragana Radakovic as Turandot - Riccardo Massi as Prince Calaf

Photo: Prudence Upton

Riccardo Massi cuts an impressively heroic figure as Prince Calaf, prepared to risk all to achieve his goal of winning the ice-princess,Turandot. Costumed in red velvet robes and leather armour, he sings magnificently and recklessly commands the stage. A real action hero who ignores commands, requests and advice in his quest to conquer the ice princess.  Perhaps however he might have shown a little more sympathy for the tragic Liu who, in an effort to deflect attention from him, snatches his dagger and uses it to commit suicide. Following which Calaf calmly retrieves the dagger, wipes it on his shoe and returns it to its scabbard.

Dragana Radakovic as Turandot - Riccardo Massi as Prince Calaf 
Photo: Prudence Upton

Making her Australian debut, Serbian soprano, Dragana Radakovic brings a luscious voice and glamorous presence to the role of the ruthless princess who spends her time composing impossible questions which her suitors must answer correctly or be put to death. Radakovic also wins brownie points for her bravery in fearlessly coping with the previously-mentioned platform, then descending to stage level via a dodgy looking set of steps. Her reluctant acquiescence to the persistent overtures of Calaf is charmingly portrayed.

Hyeseoung Kwon as Liu 
Photo:Prudence Upton

Hyeseoung Kwon is also superb as the love-sick Liu, who gives up her life to save Calaf. Apart from singing gloriously, she manages to imbue her character with a quiet dignity which beautifully captures the despair and hopelessness of her situation.  Conal Coad, as Timur, Calaf’s blind father, superbly assists her in realising this characterisation.

John Longmuir, Benjamin Rasheed and Luke Gabbedy, costumed in outrageously huge robes, bring a welcome touch of levity to the proceedings as the comic trio, Pong, Pang and Ping.

At this performance the sound system took some to settle on the correct levels, but once this was achieved the balance between the singers and Maestro Brian Castles-Onion’s lush Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra was a joy to experience. 

Handa’s Opera on Sydney Harbour are a very special and unique experience. On a balmy night it is sheer magic, but even when the weather is inclement, as it was on this occasion, that, curiously seems to add a further frisson to the experience.

Purists might curl their lips at the fireworks and gratuitous special effects, but this production of “Turandot”, the fifth in the series, staged as it is on Sydney Harbour, offers a truly unique and unforgettable opera experience the like of which can be experienced nowhere else on the planet. Do yourself a favour and don’t miss the opportunity if you can help it.  
"Turandot" on Sydney Harbour 
Photo: Prudence Upton

    This review also appears in Australian Arts Review.