The National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts’ (Weiwuying) coproduction of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot delighted audiences when it made its long-delayed Asian premiere in February last year, more than three-and-a-half years after its debut by the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Germany.
Such was the anticipation that Weiwuying had to add a fourth show to accommodate the demand after the initial three performances quickly sold out.
Tickets went even faster this year, after it was determined that despite the COVID-19 pandemic shuttering theaters and performance venues around the globe, Taiwan’s venues would be able to go back to business as (almost) normal and Weiwuying put Turandot back on its schedule for shows on Aug. 28 and 30.
Photo courtesy of National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts
A last-minute decision on the evening of Aug. 27 to livestream the next night’s show, both for those unable to obtain a ticket and for live-opera starved fans in other parts of the world, paid off, with an estimated 50,000 people tuning in.
What those in the theater and those at home saw, and heard, was a stunning display of Taiwanese talent, for almost the entire production was “made-in-Taiwan,” the exceptions being South Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee — more about him later — and Singaporean baritone Martin Ng (吳翰衛), a regular in local opera productions.
Theater director-poet Li Huan-hsiung’s (黎煥雄) vision for this East-meets-West, Persian-inspired tale of a Chinese princess so obsessed by the brutal subjugation of an ancestor that she is determined never to marry, and therefore sets impossible conditions for her would-be suitors, was to make it a parable of the rise of China — as seen through a young woman’s dream, or more accurately, her nightmare.
The decision has been controversial, especially among German opera fans, but any production of Turandot has to be something of dreamwork by its director, as Puccini died before he could finish the opera, leaving a half-developed plot and hints of what might have been.
There have also been complaints that Li’s staging is too static, but after seeing the production for a second time, I appreciate the constraints that seem to have informed Li’s choices.
Given his decision to use both a chorus and a children’s choir, plus the need for a set, however minimalist, and the size of the stages he had to work with, there is not a lot of room for movement, whether by the leads or the supporting cast.
Stage designer Liang Jo-shan (梁若珊) gives audiences a silhouette of Beijing’s Forbidden City with a long ramp at stage center and utilizes scroll-like drapes and video projections by video designer Wang Jun-jieh (王俊傑) to create the scenes, but once the choruses enter, they give new meaning to the term crowd scene.
Lai Hsuan-wu’s (賴宣吾) costumes, like the whole production, are an interesting mix of East and West, ancient and turn-of-the-20th century, and the various ethnicities found in China. But those that he created for the princess Turandot are just stunning.
The opening scene evoking Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella protests — the chorus huddling under black umbrellas with black-clad riot police lining the palace ramparts under the words “Cease or we open fire” was moving in February last year. But given all that has happened in Hong Kong since then, this time it was heartbreaking.
For all of the credit that is due the production team, it was the performances by Taiwanese soprano Hanying Tso-Petanaj (左涵瀛) in the title role, Lee as her suitor Calaf — roles they both sang with the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in early 2017 — and Taiwanese soprano Lin Ling-hui (林玲慧) as the slave girl Liu, who made the show so memorable, and rightly so.
Tso-Petanaj and Lin were excellent in last year’s performances, but with Lee, who sang his first Calaf at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna in 2012, they were terrific.
Lee started off strong and just kept getting better. His singing gave me goosebumps several times during the show, but he and Tso-Petanaj left me teary-eyed with their final aria, a condition that many in the audience appeared to be afflicted with.
The Evergreen Symphony Orchestra (長榮交響樂團), conducted by Weiwuying artistic director Chien Wen-pin (簡文彬), and beefed up with musicians from the Kaohsiung City Wind Orchestra (高雄市管樂團), sounded strong, especially when one remembers that playing for live opera is not their normal forte, although, hopefully, it could one day become so.
The members of the Kaohsiung Chamber Choir (高雄市內合唱團) and the children in the Century Voice Choir (世紀合唱團) did well; an extra year’s worth of rehearsals gave them more assurance on stage and their diction was crisper.
It will be a while before local audiences will have a chance to see this production of Turandot again: The sets and costumes were packed up last week for shipment back to Germany and performances scheduled for early next year by the Deutsche Oper am Rhine (fingers crossed).
However, Chien, his Weiwuying staff, along with Li and his production team have raised the bar for opera in Taiwan, and the nation — if not the entire opera world — is richer for it.
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