Opera Philadelphia’s Bloody King, Bloody Princess

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OPERA REVIEWS: Puccini’s Turandot; Third World Bunfight’s Macbeth (after Verdi) at Opera Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia’s Fall 2016 season fully exemplifies the company’s hallmarks – a commitment to variety and innovation, plus an enduring grounding in the classics. Besides the world premiere of Breaking the Waves (reviewed here on October 29), the season boasts a provocative and brilliant new adaptation of Verdi’s Macbeth by controversial and virtuosic South African theater troupe Third World Bunfight, as well as a glorious, quintessentially grand-opera production of Puccini’s crowning masterwork, Turandot.

Puccini’s Crown Princess

With his typically magnificent melodies, piquant exoticism, big passions and (atypical) mixed genre references, Turandot marks the pinnacle of Puccini’s musical evolution. It also represents, for many Italian opera purists, the effulgence of a spectacular sundown, the final moment of an art form.

Princess Turandot (soprano Christine Goerke) seals the fate of the Prince of Persia, who will be executed for failing to correctly answer her three riddles. Photo: Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia.

Princess Turandot (soprano Christine Goerke) seals the fate of the Prince of Persia, who will be executed for failing to correctly answer her three riddles. Photo: Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia.

It’s a work over which Puccini labored and fretted for at least the last four years of his life, leaving it to be premiered posthumously in 1926. And it’s a work periodically quibbled over in various quarters – by some, for perceived uncouth cultural appropriations; by others, for alleged dramatic irreconcilabilities in the drama and the characters themselves.

Tosh. Seen in Opera Philadelphia’s current production, all carping and contention dissolve in the sheer luxuriance of the experience – the sound, the look, the movement. This is big, bold, irresistible theater.

So what if this mythical China is refracted through the unapologetically romantic lens of a passionate Tuscan? So what if episodes of old-style commedia mix with high-stakes operatic melodrama? So what if the title character is larger than life, to the point of seeming at times more a supernatural force or a cosmic symbol than a flesh-and-blood woman? In each case, such objection can be acknowledged in the abstract, while the rebuttal is found right in the music, and in the lived experience of the opera itself. Caviling essays can be scribbled in armchairs; Turandot defies resistance from any seat in the audience.

An Oft-Told Tale

Princess Turandot (soprano Christine Goerke) is devastated to find Calaf (tenor Marco Berti) has solved her riddles and claims her hand in marriage. Photo: Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia.

Princess Turandot (soprano Christine Goerke) is devastated to find Calaf (tenor Marco Berti) has solved her riddles and claims her hand in marriage. Photo: Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia.

The underlying tale is an ancient one, seemingly knocking around from East to West for centuries. Antecedents have been traced to the era of Genghis Khan. Turandot appears in Persian literature and in Italian folk theater. Carlo Gozzi wrote a commedia dell’arte play about her. German classicist Schiller wrote his version. The princess has even been diva supreme of a couple of other operas, written before Puccini staked his claim.

In brief: Turandot, princess of China and daughter of the Emperor of the World, is a man-hater. She accepts suitors only on terms of a deadly gamble: if any would win her, he must attempt first to answer three cryptic riddles. If correct, he wins her hand. If not, he loses his head. The opera opens with the latest casualty – the Prince of Persia goes to the block.

This ongoing, high-stakes game of truth-or-consequences is portrayed by Puccini not only as a jeopardy to the men who dare play it, but as holding the entire society in terror and arrest. It’s actually an amazing dramatic achievement – Puccini’s chorus, the populace of Peking, do not merely comment on the action, they are a principal protagonist. Their suffering, and their prayers for release, are as vivid and fully dramatized as any collective agon since the tragedies of Aeschylus. As above, so below. Unless Turandot is won over, the life of the little people is one of perpetual twilight, morbidity, sterility, and death.

Enter the opera’s hero adventurer – the incognito Prince Calaf – who, despite the danger, the odds and the princess’ manifest frigidity, falls for Turandot on sight, and must give it a go. (It takes all kinds.)

Complicating matters is the appearance of Calaf’s recently deposed father, the former King Timur, blind and in pitiful mendicant guise, wandering the world with only a slave girl, Liù (who has been secretly and hopelessly in love with Calaf for many years), as his companion and guide. Nor ought we forget the trio of imperial ministers – Ping, Pang, and Pong – Puccini’s three virtually undiluted commedia characters lifted from Gozzi, who first try to dissuade Calaf from putting Peking through another round of deadly riddles, but eventually glory in the prospective spectacle of another young fool getting his comeuppance.

Marvels of the Master

Liù (soprano Joyce El-Khoury) explains how she has stuck by her master, Timur, because his son, Calaf, once smiled at her. Photo: Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia.

Liù (soprano Joyce El-Khoury) explains how she has stuck by her master, Timur, because his son, Calaf, once smiled at her. Photo: Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia.

Puccini’s achievements in Act I are wondrous. Only an artist fully confident of his powers would have attempted and succeeded in decanting so heady a brew – death, romance, metaphysics, comedy, vulgarity, sublimity.

Act II, dramatizing the riddle contest itself, offers yet more unique gestures and gambits from the master. The initial evocation of the imperial court is papal in grandeur, then gives way to a primitive, ritualized call-and-response between Calaf and Emperor done mostly in shockingly naked a cappella. Turandot’s own major aria is a quasi-Wagnerian showpiece of vaulting soprano vocal stamina in which she narrates a centuries’-old assault on her ancestress, positing it as the ur-grudge begetting her anti-man campaign.

Finally, Act III – left unfinished by Puccini but completed from his sketches by the maestro’s reliable younger contemporary Franco Alfano – must accomplish the nearly impossible task of knitting together strands of tragedy and romance, and bring a bright sunrise of love and redemption to the long suffering realm.

Opera Philadelphia’s Turandot succeeds, and its cast is perfection.

In the title role, dramatic soprano Christine Goerke, noted for her rich, powerful and nuanced mastery of Wagnerian roles, is also now one of the current scene’s Turandots par excellence, having last year assayed the role in the Met’s revival of its Zeffirelli production. Goerke fully inhabits the mythic mantle the role demands, emits rich and ravishing sound, and also gets right the nuances, the psychology, the feminine touch. Goerke’s Turandot is a monumental power, an angry woman, a susceptible human being, and a lady capable of changing her mind.

As Calaf, tenor Marco Berti is Goerke’s ideal counterpart. He, too, has power, stamina, and richness of tone as well as a sure grounding in the opera’s moment-by-moment reality. He is ardent, headstrong, romantic, and quick-witted. The stakes are high, but the endgame feels predestined. This is a couple who deserve – and complete – each other.

The exiled king Timur (bass Morris Robinson) discovers his slave girl, Liù, has sacrified herself for love. Photo: Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia.

The exiled king Timur (bass Morris Robinson) discovers his slave girl, Liù, has sacrified herself for love. Photo: Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia.

Terrific performances are also offered by bedrock-solid bass Morris Robinson as the doleful blind King Timur; and Joce El-Khoury as the tragic slave-girl Liù who sacrifices everything for the King she honors and the prince she adores. El-Khoury’s ethereal voice – tender, throbbing, pristine – fully expresses the pathos and the mystery of spiritualized love. El-Khoury’s Liù succeeds at precisely what any soprano in the role aspires to – winning over an audience so thoroughly as to temporarily hijack the opera as her own.

Ping, Pang, and Pong were played hilariously by, respectively, baritone Daniel Belcher, tenor Julius Ahn, and tenor Joseph Gaines. (Note, however, that, due to vocal duress, Gaines performed only the staging and choreography of Pong on September 25, while tenor Jeffrey Halili sang the role from a music stand stage right; this feat was pulled off with utter aplomb, and it was a delight to be present for so perfect a display of professional adaptability.)

Director Renaud Doucet makes manifold right decisions. There are no excuses made, no mitigations attempted, no pandering to naysayers. This Turandot testifies epically and lustily for itself. The princess’ transformation from cold caryatid to hot-blooded consort is handled perfectly – just look at the way Doucet stages that Act III kiss!

Likewise, conductor Corrado Rovaris extracts a full measure of joy and majesty from this, Puccini’s last, most accomplished, most vibrantly varied, and most adventurous score.

The setting of Philadelphia’s jewel of a performance space, the celebrated Academy of Music, super-adds a dimension of luxe splendor to the Turandot experience.

Turandot opened Friday September 23; was viewed September 25; with additional performances scheduled September 28 and 30 and October 2.

Congo King

Owen Metsileng as Macbeth, who becomes a General and, eventually, king. Photo: Dominic M. Mercier.

Owen Metsileng as Macbeth, who becomes a General and, eventually, king. Photo: Dominic M. Mercier.

At extreme aesthetic remove from Puccini-played-straight is Opera Philadelphia’s other presentation this season of a canonical Italian opera – the company’s co-production (and first formal collaboration) with the Philadelphia FringeArts’ 2016 Fringe Festival for an adaptation by Third World Bunfight of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth.

A “bunfight” is a British colloquialism for a petty argument of mere parochial concern. Thus its use here, as part of the moniker of this 19-year-old South African theater company, drips with provocative irony.

Third World Bunfight’s founder and artistic director, white South African visionary provocateur Brett Bailey, has dedicated his creative life to discourse on matters anything but trivial: political oppression, colonial exploitation, racial prejudice, and social justice. He is a figure of ideological contention in intellectual and journalistic circles throughout Africa and Europe, and his signature is all over this startling, subversive, and thoroughly entertaining reworking of Verdi’s opera.

Third World Bunfight has somehow managed to tighten the opera to a mere hour and forty minutes, cast it with only ten singers, reduced its score for performance by only twelve musicians, added transitions and interludes of African-inflected folk rhythms, and reset the story in the midst of a 21st-century central African genocide. The result is musically exquisite, theatrically quirky, thematically ingenious, and emotionally devastating.

In a fascinating framing device, we are told, via projected supertitles, that a troupe of dispossessed and itinerant Congolese performers has happened upon a trunkful of abandoned theater props and costumes from some long-ago and forgotten amateur production of Verdi’s Macbeth. The troupe takes these items up and uses them to retell the Verdi/Shakespeare story as an allegory of their own blighted and suffering homeland. Things take off from there.

Macbeth is a small-time Congolese warlord doing the bidding of a local factional commander. He and his colleague Banquo meet witches who utter those famous prophecies intimating that Macbeth himself will soon assume supreme power in the land. Apropos of Shakespeare, Verdi’s large witches’ chorus is reduced to just three singers, yet such economy – here and throughout the production – yields no compromise to clarity or power.

That Was No Lady…

Lady Macbeth (Nobulumko Mngxekeza) learns of the prophecy regarding her husband via a text message. Photo: Dominic M. Mercier.

Lady Macbeth (Nobulumko Mngxekeza) learns of the prophecy regarding her husband via a text message. Photo: Dominic M. Mercier.

Throughout the production, terse, biting, often vulgar, often hilarious paraphrases of Verdi’s Italian text are projected in lieu of standard supertitles.

We first meet Lady Macbeth in the jejune setting of a launderette, a basin of suds next to her (foreshadowing “out, out, damned spot”?), as she receives a text message from her husband: “Babe. Met witches in the forest. Said i will b king. WTF !!? C u lata. xxM.”

Macbeth and his wife speed prophecy along by killing the Commander themselves and assuming power, just as in Shakespeare. And while the score may be 19th-century Verdi, this is a world of patent 21st-century savagery, squalor, decadence, and corruption. The Macbeths may exercise the quotidian prerogatives of all petty tyrants, but their realm is actually ruled by impersonal and transnational forces of commerce, in the form of mining conglomerate “Hexagon” – a cleverly crafted multiple symbol of oppression political, economic, and existential.

Brett Bailey speaks in interviews of his fascination by, and disgust at, what he calls the perennial “bad taste of dictators.” That target is repeatedly aimed at in this production. As they rise in power, the Macbeths become increasingly ugly avatars of pop-culture. She wears ridiculous, form-fitting leopard skin onesies and sings some of Verdi’s most exquisite arias gyrating in front of a nightclub microphone in the whirling psychedelia of a disco ball. He wears a headpiece shaped like a huge clenched red fist, and his reign is ostentatiously one of equal parts terror and kitsch.

Something Verdi Special

Banquo (Otto Maidi), Macbeth (Owen Metsileng) and Lady Macbeth (Nobulumko Mngxekeza) participate in the king’s funeral. Photo: Dominic M. Mercier.

Banquo (Otto Maidi), Macbeth (Owen Metsileng) and Lady Macbeth (Nobulumko Mngxekeza) participate in the king’s funeral. Photo: Dominic M. Mercier.

The production is radical, agit-prop, absurdist and constantly inventive. There are shades of Evita, major echoes of Jarry’s Ubu Roi, and even – dare one say it? – an indebtedness to Jean Genet’s infamous “clown show,” The Blacks. But ultimately, an event like this defies description. There is visceral, irreducible theatricality here – raw, real, awesome and disturbing.

The all-black-African singers were mind-blowingly good. Owen Metsileng as Macbeth was big, brash, scary, and fascinating. Nobulumko Mngxekeza was a peerless Lady Macbeth, a formidable and big-boned tigress with the ferocity of a Callas and the moves of a Gypsy Rose Lee. Otto Maidi as Banquo was equally impressive, rich-voiced, and imposing.

The amazingly efficient and effective reduction of the score, as well as added musical elements, was the work of Belgian composer, Fabrizio Cassol. The instrumental forces were provided by the (mostly white) No Borders Orchestra, conducted by Serbian conductor, Premil Petrovic.

This Third World Bunfight Macbeth played at Philadelphia’s Prince Theater on September 24 and 25, and was viewed on September 24. This was the premiere of the company’s current American tour.

» www.operaphila.org

» Third World Bunfight’s Macbeth travels to Vancouver for the inaugural Vancouver Opera Festival this spring. For more information, click here.

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About Author

Charles Geyer is a director, producer, composer, playwright, actor, singer, and freelance writer based in New York City. He directed the Evelyn La Quaif Norma for Verismo Opera Association of New Jersey, and the New York premiere of Ray Bradbury’s opera adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. His cabaret musical on the life of silent screen siren Louise Brooks played to acclaim in L.A. He has appeared on Broadway, off-Broadway and regionally. He is an alum of the Commercial Theatre Institute and was on the board of the American National Theatre. He is a graduate of Yale University and attended Harvard's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. He can be contacted here.

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