Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Turandot
Opera Philadelphia
Review by Cameron Kelsall

Also see Rebecca's reviews of Stupid Fucking Bird and South Pacific


Christine Goerke
Photo by Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia
Opera Philadelphia opens its 2016-2017 season with a revival of Puccini's final opera, Turandot, directed and choreographed by Renaud Doucet. In a casting coup, Christine Goerke sings the title role. Once a frequent guest artist with the company, Goerke has not appeared at the Academy of Music since 2008. In the interim, she has become one of the most sought after dramatic sopranos in the United States and abroad.

The role of Turandot is short but difficult. It requires only about thirty minutes of singing over the course of a nearly three-hour opera, yet the tessitura requires a soprano with the dexterity to shift from punishingly high notes to a luxurious lower register within a single aria. Turandot's famous aria, "In questa reggia" ("In this palace"), is one of the most difficult pieces of music in the modern repertoire, and the soprano sings it the first moment she walks onstage in act two. To some, the role might seem like more work than it's worth.

In that respect, I would describe Goerke's performance as a heroic effort. At the performance I attended, she needed most of "In questa reggia" to warm up her voice, but by the middle of act two, she was firing on all cylinders. Hers is a plush sound, which easily fills the Academy of Music and soars above Maestro Corrado Rovaris' orchestra. Most wonderfully, Goerke—who began her career as a Mozart and Handel specialist before taking on heavier assignments—retains much of the exquisite vocal control that her early roles required. In recent years, Turandot has often become the provenance of over the hill sopranos with large but unwieldy voices. It was nice, for once, to hear the role performed by a singer with a larger instrument that she could fully control.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Goerke's performance, though, is how she acts the role. Turandot is not a complex character. She avenges the death of her ancestor, Princess Lou-Ling, by killing the royal men who seek her hand in marriage if they cannot answer her three riddles. At the top of the first act, the Prince of Persia has failed the test. Turandot makes a silent appearance to approve his execution. I've seen several sopranos use this as an excuse to employ silent movie, "off with his head" gestures meant to signify Turandot's cruelty. Yet Goerke pauses and shudders before eventually relenting and sending the prince to his doom. This is not just a poignant choice, but a smart one, because it justifies the journey Turandot herself will take throughout the course of the opera. The idea that Turandot will submit herself to love in the final act becomes believable.

Much of the opera centers around Calaf, the exiled prince who will eventually conquer Turandot's heart after correctly answering the three riddles. Calaf is sung here by Marco Berti, who has performed the role in many major opera houses. (He starred opposite Nina Stemme in last season's Metropolitan Opera production of the opera.) His voice is a large instrument, but a blunt one—he has no difficulty summoning a large font of sound, but in doing so, he sacrifices subtlety or connection to the text. Rarely have I heard the famous aria "Nessun dorma" ("None shall sleep"), sometimes jokingly referred to as "Opera's National Anthem," with so little feeling for the words. Berti's acting style can be categorized squarely as park and bark: He strikes a pose and belts like Ethel Merman. Some in the audience seemed to love him, but his style left me cold.

This revival's unqualified triumph is Joyce El-Khoury as the slave Liu. This fast-rising Canadian soprano captivates whenever she opens her mouth. The role of Liu is not a star-making part, yet she is gifted with two of Puccini's most memorable soprano arias: the meltingly lyrical "Signore, ascolta!" ("My lord, listen!") and her dramatic death scene, "Tu che di gel sei cinta" ("You who are frozen in ice"). El-Khoury caps the former aria with an ethereally floated pianissimo that all but slides down the walls of the parquet. Her performance of the latter aria—which culminates in Liu's suicide—is as dramatically realized as I've ever seen or heard. This is a talent I expect to encounter for years to come, and I couldn't be happier.

American bass Morris Robinson produces waves of sonorous sound in the brief role of King Timur, Calaf's blind father. The opera's comprimario roles are well cast, and the Philadelphia Orchestra chorus, under Elizabeth Braden's directorship, sounds fine as ever. Maestro Rovaris leads a compact, if unexciting, reading of the score. Doucet's production is more interesting to me than the overwrought chinoiserie the Met has trotted out for the past three decades, yet the motifs of death that predominate throughout could probably be more keenly explored. At the end of the day, though, Turandot is a crowd-pleasing opera, and this revival certainly scores in that respect. The audience at the Sunday matinee performance I attended were on their feet cheering as soon as the curtain fell.

Turandot continues at the Academy of Music (240 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia) through October 2, 2016. Tickets ($19-219) can be purchased online at www.operaphila.org or by calling 215-732-8400.


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