Giacomo Puccini’s final opera is the tale of a Chinese ice princess melted by an implacable love. Turandot, channeling the spirit of a violated ancestress, sets suitors three unanswerable riddles to be answered on pain of death.
The story’s roots go back centuries. Marco Polo told of the Mongol princess Aiyaruk; rather than set riddles, she wrestled her suitors with losers having to pony up 100 horses. A similar story, with riddles, was told by the 12th century Persian poet Nizami. It traveled through 18th and 19th-century Western books and theatre—most notably a mid-18th century Italian commedia dell’arte play by Carlo Gozzi—until it ended up in Puccini’s libretto.
The opera, one has to say, can stray perilously close to orientalism and chinoiserie. In this new production, a joint effort between Opera Hong Kong and the New York City Opera, director Michael Carpasso deals with this issue by implicitly acknowledging it. The chorus and the many extras sport—in more than a nod to the original Gozzi play—commedia dell’arte masks and costumes that combine elements of 18th or 19th century dress with Chinese flourishes. Insofar as the numerous costumes of Ping, Pang and Pong evoke any particular dynasty, it is that of Shanghai Tang.
This isn’t meant to be China, but a made-up fantasy land. The first Act opens with a largely ethnic Chinese chorus dressed as Italian contadini, masked to hide their features, playing the part of a Chinese crowd. Carpasso’s Turandot is less about China than it is a (somewhat sly) commentary on (often ill-informed) Western views of China. It is also, perhaps inadvertently due to the multi-ethnic nature of this Opera Hong Kong production, a comment on ethnic and cultural identity.
Any opera company worthy of the name needs to do more than just stage operas: catalyzing new productions and new ways of looking at a work, especially ones which address the work’s continuing relevance in a place and time other than in which it was written, is exactly what one would hope an Hong Kong-based opera company would do.
Opera Hong Kong assembled two international casts for this run of five performances. On opening night, Soprano Oksana Dyka was fresh off performances of Turandot at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. It can be hard to endow Turandot with much of a personality, but soprano Mlada Khudoley managed to show contempt, an almost teenage petulance, confusion and even some introspection: this didn’t make Turandot any more likeable, but Khudoley showed hints of the person behind the—in this case literal—mask.
Perhaps in line with its forward-to-the-past concept, this production seems to have specified an old-fashioned “stand up and sing” Calàf. Korean tenor Arturo Kim—who had sung the opera at Covent Garden—delivered a full-throated and entirely italianate performance; and as a (still rare) Asian Calàf, he looked the part. Gustavo Porta’s warm tenor bestowed upon his Calàf about as much humanity as the opera and the production allowed.
Turandot is Puccini’s most ambivalent work. Of all of his dramatic operas, the only other with a happy ending is “La fanciulla del West”. But here, love’s triumph is bittersweet indeed, for while Turandot’s music is striking and the ringing high B of “Nessun dorma” casts Calàf in a heroic light, neither is a very appealing character.
Puccini gave the most moving music to the faithful slave girl Liù, secretly in love with Calàf, and who sacrifices herself for him. And in this role, in her second outing with Opera Hong Kong after singing Desdemona two years ago, Italian soprano Valeria Sepe shone. One can only hope it won’t be her last visit. Russian soprano Natalya Pavlova had also sung the role in Turin. Nothing in her portrayal (with apologies to Shakespeare) became her quite like the leaving of it: Pavlova made Liù’s suicide visceral.
Veteran Italian conductor Paoli Olmi conducting the Hong Kong Philharmonic provided the glue that held the performances together.