A conundrum lies at the center of the operatic form: What is more important, the ideas contained in the libretto or the beauty and richness of the musical invention? Salieri decided it was Prima la musica, poi le parole (first the music, then the words). With its new production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, with sets by high-profile artist David Hockney, Lyric Opera seems to be dodging the problem altogether, offering a new maxim: First the set design and then the opera.
For all the hype surrounding Mephistofele, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Gambler, no show this season has been anticipated as eagerly as Turandot. The last show of the season at Lyric has often been used for desultory revivals with second-string casts, but this time Lyric pulled out all the stops. Last spring it announced not only a superstar stage designer (Hockney), but also an apparently strong cast and a formidable director, Lotfi Mansouri. In addition, Turandot is an immensely powerful work, in which Puccini started working in an idiom far more international than his earlier operas. The story of the ice princess, with her collection of suitors’ heads on spikes, recalled to humanity through an example of love, is reminiscent of Hofmannsthal. The music has overtones of Mussorgsky and Richard Strauss, making the opera something of an Italianate Die Frau ohne Schatten. Add the prospect of seeing a major repertory opera at Lyric for the first time since 1970, when the title role was sung by Birgit Nilsson, and you should have a surefire blockbuster.
But despite all the momentum, something went terribly wrong. Make that many things. The greatest danger to the quality of a production from a high-profile stage director or set designer is that the opera may be misinterpreted by an ego that cannot or will not be made subservient to the requirements of the original work. When the energetic Mansouri dropped out early in the game and was replaced by the presumably more pliable (from Hockney’s point of view) William Farlow, all signals pointed to this possibility. But Farlow’s direction of this rather static show proved innocuous, and Hockney did nothing shocking or horrible. Surprisingly, Turandot fell flat on its face because of a multitude of bread- and-butter musical problems.
So many problems were apparent on opening night that it’s hard to know where to start. I’ll begin with the fourth runner-up: the Lyric Opera Chorus, sounding the worst it has all season, which blew a major number in the first act. It lost the chance to attain highest honors by improving during acts two and three. Third runner-up: soprano Eva Marton, who bellowed her way through the title role. The years have left Marton, never known as la bella voce, with a large ugly tone that has all the charm of a siren on a police car. Second runner-up: Lucia Mazzaria, who has a weak voice and no discernible acting ability, and allowed the sympathetic character of Liu, essential to the pathos of Turandot, to fade into insignificance. (Mazzaria ran home to Italy last year after one appearance as Micaela in Carmen. I was one of the many fortunate enough not to hear her in that role.) First runner-up: the Lyric Opera Orchestra under Bruno Bartoletti, which sounded like a pickup outfit brought together for the evening. Actually, the only way they could be said to be together was in the mundane physical sense that they were all in the pit. Certainly they were not together musically–nor were any of the other forces under Bartoletti’s command: the chorus, onstage instrumentalists, and principals. Throughout the performance the gentleman in front of me kept peering into the pit. Perhaps he was checking to see whether there was a conductor.
The champion musical dud was Lando Bartolini in the role of Calaf. I am still not entirely sure what happened in the second-act duet with Turandot; not only did he not go for the high C, but at one point he seemed to lose his voice completely. Rumor has it that he was sick and didn’t perform in the dress rehearsal (though we did not get Danny Newman’s normal speech begging for sympathy). He could have done himself and the audience a favor by dropping out opening night.
The musical side of the show did have a few positive aspects. The difficult music of the courtiers Pang, Pong, and Ping was admirably handled by Piero de Palma, Douglas Perry, and James Michael McGuire. Dimitri Kavrakos gave a decent accounting of Timur, and Bruce Fowler provided an unobjectionable rendering of the aged emperor Altoum, though his young tenor is completely wrong for the role.
Where does this leave Hockney, his collaborator Ian Falconer, and the sets and costumes? So much attention has been focused on Hockney’s contribution that tickets were at a premium due to hordes of earnest Hockneyites (or is that Hockneyists?). As the musical infelicities piled up, the physical look of the production became almost irrelevant. Still, it’s impossible to ignore the sets, which were colorful but not quite to the point of garishness. (Though the costumes of Ping, Pang, and Pong did seem to cross the line into mere garishness, and the elephant-man mask of the emperor was rather extreme.) The visual mass of some design elements in the first act and the second scene of the second act seemed to shove the players into the background: though a large number of performers were onstage, these elements made the players appear small and insignificant. Yet while the overall visual impact was strong, it was restrained enough that there was no sense that Hockney was trying to steal the show from Puccini. His sets were interesting, if not earth-shattering, and probably unlikely to have any long-term impact on set design. But even the best sets and costumes in the world can’t salvage a production that’s floundering musically.