Like many, my first introduction to the opera was through Luciano Pavarotti. I remember as a kid, being so enthralled by his voice, I thought he was a rock star. Especially when he performed in the super group The Three Tenors. Thanks to Mr. Pavarotti, I was introduced to the aria ‘Nessun dorma’ from Puccini’s opera, Turandot. While I know the melody of ‘Nessun dorma’ well, I did not know nor understand the context. So, when Opera Australia announced Turandot as part of their 2019 Melbourne season, I decided to finally find out what ‘Nessun dorma’ was all about.
With Opera Australia’s production directed by Graeme Murphy and conducted by Christian Badaea, Turandot, I’ve discovered, is first and foremost a love story. Set in a fantasy ancient China, our hero Prince Calaf played by Walter Fraccaro, succumbs to love at first sight when he sees Turandot’s beauty. Turandot, played by Lise Lindstrom, is somewhat an agent of death. Equipped with three riddles that one must answer to win her hand in marriage, she outwits many suitors, all failing her quiz and paying with their lives.
You would think that witnessing a suitor’s death and seeing his head on platter would discourage a man from pursuing the lethal princess. But despite Turandot being a dangerous woman, Calaf cannot be discouraged from pursuing her by either his father, his servant Liu, the members of the imperial court, the emperor, nor even Turandot herself. The man is smitten and after much passionate persuasion, Calaf is allowed to compete in the challenge to win the ice princess’ heart. When Calaf triumphantly solves the three riddles that the princess sets before him, Turandot is still reluctant to marry him. And so, offering the princess an out, Calaf decides to challenge the princess with his own riddle, which she must solve before dawn. If she is to find out his name before dawn, he will die.
Dramatic as hell, Opera Australia’s production of Puccini’s Turandot is extremely entertaining and visually mesmerizing. I love how stubborn Calaf was and how reckless, yet somewhat calculated his actions were, much like any man would be when blindly and hopelessly in love. I love how cold and uninviting Princess Turandot appears to be. But while she does appear this way to her kingdom and even the audience, this is not how Calaf sees her. So, I guess it’s no surprise that he successfully manages to thaw her frozen heart.
Walter Fraccaro is brilliant in his role as Calaf. His voice so superb, you really went on a journey with him. I did think his character was a little nuts, and had it been me, I would have ran for the hills in the opposite direction far, far away from Turandot. But love is crazy and makes you do crazy things, which translated well on-stage perfectly.
When Fraccaro performed the iconic ‘Nessun Dorma’, I finally understood what the song was about. Calaf, a man so passionately in love and hellbent on achieving victory, had laid his life on the line. Putting all his energy into the challenge of outwitting the princess, Calaf is determined and convinced that he will win Turandot’s heart. If that’s not nuts, I don’t know what is.
Thanks to the impressive set designs, props and costuming by Kristian Fredrikson, Lise Lindstrom looked both incredibly stunning and intimidating as Turandot. But it was Karah Son that really won me over as servant girl Liu, who is unconditionally and unrequitedly in love with Calaf. While Turandot is always dressed in white, Liu is dressed in darker colours, making her appear poorer but reflecting her humbleness. Liu, when questioned for the foreign prince’s name refuses to expose Calaf and instead kills herself, but not before the exquisite aria, ‘Tu che di gel sei cinta’, which Son sings beautifully, stating to the princess that she too will learn to know of compassionate joy and love.
Although there were surtitles available, I was often lost in the performances of the cast, completely forgetting to look up and read the surtitles because I was so captivated. This is not a bad thing.
Turandot is a fantastical dramatic journey through ‘difficult love’. While Puccini never finished his compositions for Turandot due to his death, I am certain after diving into his opera that life’s greatest struggles of ‘sacrifice and love’ were exactly the passionate themes that the composer always meant to tell in his works, evident in this hauntingly wonderful Opera Australia production. I am grateful that Luciano Pavarotti introduced me to ‘Nessun dorma’ all those years ago in my childhood, as if not for him, I would not have listened to my curiosity to go see this amazing production of Turandot. Whether you’ve been to the opera many times, or have always wanted to see your first one, Turandot is a must see. After all, who doesn’t enjoy a crazy love story?
Turandot is now playing at Arts Centre Melbourne until December 6.
For more information visit: https://opera.org.au/whatson/events/turandot-melbourne
Photography by Jeff Busby.