Turandot by Bob Wilson: A Doll’s House

Photo by Michael Cooper. Tamara Wilson (foreground) as Turandot in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Turandot, 2019. Conductor Carlo Rizzi; direction, design, and lighting concept by Robert Wilson; co-director Nicola Panzer; costume designer Jacques Reynaud; co-set designer Stephanie Engeln; co-lighting designer John Torres

There was a bright streak of joy running through Puccini’s Turandot as conceived by Bob Wilson, contrary to this opera’s reputation as a solemn, staid affair made up of a series of proclamations. Perhaps it’s because Wilson’s famous white makeup ‘masks’ reminded so much of Buster Keaton and the comedy figures of the silent film era? Or that the Ping-Pang-Pong, renamed Jim, Bob and Bill (Adrian Timpau, Julius Ahn, Joseph Hu), kept the beat of the production going by clowning and carnivaling in the commedia dell’arte manner around the rest of the very serious characters? Or was it due to the strength of singing by the two principals, Tamara Wilson (Turandot) and Sergey Skorokhodov (Calaf)?

Not the most persuasive of librettos (by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, based on the play by Carlo Gozzi) in the history of opera, this one – so the director is essential. The icy Chinese princess keeps saying no to suitors until one, Calaf, solves her riddles and is persistent enough for her to give in. Just because a woman absolutely HAS to die in a Puccini opera, there’s also the character of Liu who kind of follows Calaf around and sacrifices her life for him.  None of the interactions make remotest sense. Calaf meets Liu, and an old man who turns out is his long lost father (don’t @ me), at a well-attended public execution. After Calaf solves Turandot’s riddles, he… gives her the task of finding out his real name if she wants to get out of the marriage. (I said don’t @ me.) Anyway, fast forward, his persistence and his willingness to give his life for her turn Turandot and when Calaf tells her that his name is Captain Love, she doesn’t laugh him off the imperial court. The End.

Probably none of this struck Bob Wilson & team as serious dramatic propositions and they created a piece that is a visual feast, foremost. Instead of trying to diminish the static, tableau nature of the scenes, they emphasized it. Arms are not to be moved except in a very proscribed way in a Wilson production, and walking in Act 1 only used as accent on the expressed words, so in a couple of early sequences some  of the singers move back and forth in and out of the crowd on a cuckoo clock line. Powerful characters are wheeled into the tableaux by special contraptions – like the Emperor and early on Turandot herself. It is all beautifully apposite, including the occasional facial expressions of silent screams on this face or that, that are a pleasing mix of comic and horrified. Empire courts are highly ceremonial, and so is this production.

Later on, Turandot glides across the stage as if on a track. She is the only person on stage in a bold red dress amidst the cooler colours of gray, black, white and blue. The night he’s singing Nessun dorma, Calaf walks through some sort of stylized forest of thorn.

(l-r) Joseph Hu as Bill/Pong, Sergey Skorokhodov as Calaf, Julius Ahn as Bob/Pang, Adrian Timpau as Jim/Ping in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Turandot, 2019. Photo: Michael Cooper

Tamara Wilson and Sergey Skorokhodov give life to their characters chiefly by being very much vocally up to the task. The tenor has probably the best known operatic aria in the history of opera in “Nessun dorma”, and the soprano gets no such thing with “In questa reggia” but Tamara Wilson made her vocal lines sound easy and conversational. David Leigh (Timur), Adrian Thompson (Emperor) and Joyce El-Khoury (Liu) were all respectable in their roles. While dramatically effective and essential for the proceedings, the Timpau, Ahn, Hu trio were mixed vocally, with higher voices a bit strained higher up and the lower one more assured and distinct. Carlo Rizzi conducted the COC orchestra capably, with sensible tempi. Can this score be more visceral and engaging? One for Puccini completists to tell me.

The Wilson Turandot is extremely visually pleasing, and comes with unexpected joys, occasionally even humour. It is also without a strong pulse, alas – like a beautiful automaton. It felt like we were observing the happenings inside a doll’s house with elaborate, beautifully designed components, or rifling though a box of photographs: stunning though they may be, they are quite dead. The music is full of chinoiserie and the stylized, simplified, monochromatic imperial China costumes (designer Jacques Reynaud) riff freely and elegantly off that. There is much to enjoy in this Turandot, and in many way this is an all-ages show that children in your life may like too. But an exciting and visceral piece of theatre it is not. Feast for the eyes that will somehow manage to leave you hungry.

Tamara Wilson and Sergey Skorokhodov in Bob Wilson-directed Turandot (COC, 2019). Photo by Michael Cooper.

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