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Vivid, commanding SF Opera ‘Turandot’

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Martina Sarafin and Brian Jagde opened San Francisco Opera’s 2017-18 season as the leads in the lustrous “Turandot.” (Courtesy Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)
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San Francisco Opera unfurled its 95th season Friday by reviving a David Hockney production of Puccini’s “Turandot” as eye-catching as it has been in its four previous presentations, a quality made all the more attractive opening night with a solid cast of principals.

Hockney’s set design lays out a spiraling and boldly red Great Wall of China and other distinctly hued East Asian structures, a multi-chromatic scheme that Ian Falconer’s vibrantly colored costumes embellish. The Act 1 juxtaposition of a sea of black-costumed imperial subjects against the red walls is particularly striking.

In this bright-red Sino-landscape reigns the icily reserved Turandot, sung by the attractive Austrian soprano Martina Serafin, who made for a regally stunning princess. Princes from faraway lands try to win Turandot’s love by answering three riddles she poses — always unsuccessfully, though, a mistake that costs them their lives.

Serafin made an impressive entrance in Act 2 with her showpiece aria “In questa reggia,” as she declared her resolve to honor a wronged ancestor with her plush, assured voice that was steely when it needed to be. There is no shred of a shrinking flower to this defiantly cold Turandot, which makes her ultimate capitulation to the romantic entreaties of the exiled prince Calaf a more compelling change of heart.

Calaf, sung by the vocally appealing tenor Brian Jagde, manages to correctly answer all three of Turandot’s riddles and wins the right to her hand in marriage. Although he was a bit stiff dramatically, Jagde sounded radiant and he hit all his high notes with aplomb, whether it was in his dreamy Act 3 aria “Nessun dorma” or in duets with Turandot or the slave girl Liu.

Soprano Toni Marie Palmertree, a current Adler fellow, seamlessly stepped in as Liu after Maria Agresta withdrew due to illness, marking the second time at the Opera House the former has made such an impression. (Palmertree excelled as Cio-Cio-San on short notice in “Madama Butterfly” in November 2016.) As the loyal slave who also bears a noble love for Calaf, Liu is a sympathetic figure from the get-go, but Palmertree’s tender, expressive voice made her character an even more endearing figure.

As Calaf’s frail and blind father Timur, bass Raymond Aceto’s resonant, warm voice more than made up for the physical limitations built into the role as the banished king of Tartary.

The cast-of-thousands-like appearance and sound of Ian Robertson’s chorus was resplendent, and music director Nicola Luisotti, starting his last season with the company and receiving the San Francisco Opera Medal after the performance, guided the orchestra through an agile, nuanced reading of Puccini’s rich score.

REVIEW
Turandot
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 12, Sept.15, Sept. 21 and Sept. 30; 2 p.m. Sept. 24
Tickets: $26 to $398
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com
Note: The production returns with Nina Stemme in the title role, Leah Crocetto as Liù and Soloman Howard as Timur at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 18, Nov. 25, Nov. 28, Dec. 6, Dec. 9 and 2 p.m. Dec. 3.

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