From the moment the lights in the Harrison Opera House went down and a foreboding executioner stepped onto the stage, wielding her sword, symbolically beheading the opera’s first victim, I was entranced.
The Virginia Opera’s rendition of Puccini’s “Turandot” is a mesmerizing spectacle of power; recounting the tale of the indomitable Princess Turandot and the wake of death she leaves behind her. Empowered by the tragic demise of her ancestor, a woman raped and murdered by a conquering prince, Turandot refuses to become the property of any man. To this end, any suitor who asks for her hand must answer three riddles. One false answer results in beheading performed by the royal executioner Pu-Tin-Pao and her four executioner’s men…or in this, case, women. Everything — from the flawless casting to the inspired costumes to the bold staging — easily made “Turandot” the best performance I’ve seen in the 17 seasons I’ve attended of the VA Opera. But what makes it truly compelling, to me, is the showcasing of strength and power of some of the most badass women of opera.
“Turandot” is not the type of princess who dreams of her prince while dancing with woodland creatures. She’s more mysterious Sphinx than frivolous cartoon; a princess who has men beheaded for the impunity of asking for her hand in marriage and not being clever enough to answer her riddles. Soprano Kelly Cae Hogan portrays Princess Turandot perfectly—beautifully balancing the complex characteristics of a woman who appears glacial and coldblooded but also just a touch vulnerable under her independent bravado. Turandot is compassionless in her orders to behead suitors, but she’s compelling, and the audience can still empathize and relate to her instead of just finding her to be heartless. Hogan captures her spirit and strength all with a flawlessly magnificent voice and commanding stage presence.
Pu-Tin-Pao, the main executioner, and her four co-executioners, are silent, but powerfully deadly. Traditionally, the roles are all male, but in this production, the roles go to female dancers. And they are nothing short of mesmerizing. Their choreography is breathtaking—quite literally, I found myself holding my breath in the opening act when the executioners danced around Pu-Tin-Pau, whipping the crowd (and the audience) into fervor. Later, they silently wait at the ready, while Turandot’s suitors attempt to answer her riddles, powerful and foreboding. Holding the lives of the suitors in their hands, they are a commanding presence on stage. In striking red costumes, their subtle, concise movements exude an impressive amount of power and strength. It seems logical that Turandot would prefer to have female executioners, keeping with her belief that men should have no control over her. But, it was still a bold– and wise–move to cast the executioners as women in this production, rather than the traditional male characters.
Another strong female character is Liu, a woman in love with Prince Calaf, one of the suitors of Turandot. No opera is complete without a little bit of a labyrinthine side story. This one involved Prince Calaf, who falls in love with Turandot, reuniting with his father who was once a king, but now a deposed, blind man, with one loyal servant: Liu. Liu, of course, is in love with Prince Calaf and ultimately decides to die for him. I was prepared to roll my eyes at this, as I tend to do in most self-sacrifices in dramatic unrequited love stories. I’d sooner yell at the stage, “what is wrong with you?! You have a whole life of your own to live!!! He’s not worth it” than tear up or be moved by these moments. But, in this case, Danielle Pastin portrays Liu with such conviction that I was moved. She sings so convincingly and resolutely, not of sacrifice or loneliness, but of the gift of life that she alone can give him. She does not sacrifice herself because she can’t live without him. She sacrifices herself because she knows that he can live because of her actions. She, too, has power to control the lives and fates of others and herself.
Besides compelling female characters, the bold artistic direction stands out in “Turandot.” The staging and props are minimal; in their place, stormy skies, a luminescent moon, and idyllic flowers are projected onto a large screen. It provides a powerful effect. When the screen turned red and stormy while the executioners awaited their chance, I felt chills. Another daring aspect is the costuming. The chorus, members of the crowd outside the palace, are dressed simply all in black with black masks around their eyes. The executioners wear gorgeous red costumes with similar masks. Turandot wears a simple, white outfit. The symbolism is unmistakable: Turandot can be seen as both pure and icy. The crowd is merely an anonymous mass. The executioners have red blood on their hands. Surprisingly, I really loved the somewhat minimalist approach. Instead of getting caught up in the pageantry and trappings of ostentatious dresses or a myriad of colors, the characters were stripped down: you got to the true essence of the characters. It was stark, it was bold, and it was perfect. Plus, it made the gorgeous glittery bejeweled costumes of the emperor and palace scenes appear that much more opulent.
I attended my very first opera when I was in high school: “Lucia de Lammermoor” performed by the Virginia Opera. Since then I’ve seen dozens of performances here in Virginia, at the Staatsoper in Vienna, the Palais Garnier in Paris, and Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. This production of “Turandot” is magnificent and has eclipsed them all. The story, the staging, the boldness, the cast, everything about this opera is exactly what I feel opera should be: dark, powerful, suspenseful, and ultimately, beautiful.
Don’t miss your chance to see this production! The final Norfolk performance is tonight, March 21. With dates in Richmond March 31st and April 1st and in Fairfax March 25th and 26th and several pricing options available, there are multiple opportunities to see Turandot. Please click here for tickets or more info.