Vancouver Opera's Turandot: a Canadian production of an Italian Opera of a Persian fable set in Peking China

Vancouver Opera's Turandot: a Canadian production of an Italian Opera of a Persian fable set in Peking China

October 22,25,27,29, November 1,3, 2005
Queen Elizabeth Theatre
Vancouver, BC

Sally Dibblee and
Renzo Zulian, as Liu and Prince Calaf in Vancouver Opera's Turandot –
photo Tim Matheson, courtesy of Vancouver Opera

It was a night to wear your chinoiserie to the Vancouver Opera
to celebrate the Vancouver Opera's season opener of Turandot.  So
many people were wearing Chinese influenced outfits as well as
cheong-sams and jackets from Chinatown, that I could have mistaken myself at a Chinese New Year Dinner.  Turandot is an opera
based on a fable about a Chinese princess who challenges every royal
suitor to answer three riddles correctly, or else they are be-headed.

I was intrigued by how an Italian opera based on a Persian fable set in
Peking would play.  Would the characters be stereotyped Asians
such as many old and current Hollywood movies?  Would the music be
pale imitations of Asian music, reduced to catchy hooks?  Would it
be Chinese egg noodles dressed up with tomato sauce and called

Puccini’s opera Turandot (first performed 1926), sets him up as one of
the pioneers of World Music, incorporating not only actual Chinese folk
melodies into the music score but also traditional percussive
instruments.  Chinese tam tams (gongs) were visible in the
Vancouver Opera orchestra pit.

“The main musical theme, which is associated with the Emperor and
Princess Turandot herself, is the chinese folk meloday Mo Li Hua
(Jasmine Flower),” says Opera chorus member Heather Pawsey,
who has performed the song in Mandarin at Gung Haggis Fat Choy dinner
events.  “Apparently Puccini had a music box on his desk which
someone had brought him from China, and that was one of the songs it

Renzo Zulian is outstanding as Calaf, the Prince of Tartary.  His 3rd Act performance of Nessun Dorma rocked the house to thunderous
applause.  Of course, everybody knows Nessun Dorma from the Three
Tenors performance at the 1990 World Soccer Championships now, and forever associated with Pavorotti.  In
the 1st act Calaf falls in love with the princess Turandot, and answers
the three riddles in the 2nd act, setting up a stand-off with a
resistant princess determined not to take a husband.

Audrey Stottler made her Vancouver performance as Princess
Turandot.  This is her signature role, which she has even
performed at Bejing’s Forbidden City, the Imperial Palace for
generations of Chinese emperors.  Stottler sang brilliantly and
was a very convincing ice princess, confident that no prince would ever
solve the riddles, and she would continue in her solo quest of
dictatorial absolute power forever.  

The libretti is based on the 1762 play Turandot, by Carlo Gozzi, 
Puccini wanted his version to give Princess Turandot a warmer and more
developed role than the shallower ice princess of the Gozzi play.  

“God it’s great, I love it!” exclaimed Vancouver Opera concert master
Mark Ferris about the Puccini score for Turandot.  “I’ve been
practicing it all week, it’s so rich.  Mozart operas can be so
finicky, but Puccini is very deep.”

“Lots of pentatonic scales, “he confirmed about Puccini incorporating
Chinese folk melodies into Turandot,” Ferris himself is familiar with
Chinese music having performed Tandun’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden
Dragon” score last year with the CBC Orchestra, as well as having a
written a violin caprice based on Chinese structures (that was first
performed publicly at the 2004 Gung Haggis Fat Choy dinner event).

Court bureaucrats
Ping, Pang and Pong played by Michel Corbeil, Peter Blanchet and
Gregory Dahl, dwarfing Renzo Zulian as Calaf, Prince of Tartary – photo
by Tim Matheson, courtesy of Vancouver Opera.

The characters of Ping, Pang and Pong are pure “commedia dell’arte,” commented culture and food critic Tim Pawsey, also husband of Heather Pawsey.  The three court bureaucrats are
performed brilliantly by Gregory Dahl, Peter Blanchet and Michel
Corbeil.  They provide an intellectual foil to the cold-hearted
princess, questioning amongst themselves the role they have become as
an executioners’ committee, as each of her suitors is put to death.

“Never should two character tenors be on stage at the same time” said
General Director James Wright, as he introduced the performers at the
after party, commenting on their wonderful ensemble work.  All three actors
provided wonderful physical acting both on stage and in the
bigger-than-life costumes on wheels they wear for the public square
scenes, which seem to heighten the both the comedy and the fairy tale

Ninety-four people are on stage for the execution and public square
scenes including the main characters (4), supporting characters (5),
chorus (55), children’s chorus(17) and supernumeraries (13 non-singing
roles).  With an additional sixty-four orchestra members in the
orchestra pit, and led by conductor Tyrone Paterson, a spectacular wall of sound and sight was created, as
both the emperor and Princess Turandot stood tall on moving scaffolds,
filling the large stage.

This is opera at it’s grandest. It’s a perfect introduction if you have
never seen an opera before.  Everything is just as it should be –
over the top in spectacle, drama, and singing, and the orchestra’s
performance was exquisite. We chatted with some of the orchestra
members after the show, and they were having a great time, and wishing
they could see the action on the stage.

And in the end, it didn’t matter how accurately reflective of Chinese
culture, the opera really was.  This was in fact an Italian
version of a Persian fable, and was perfect in its context.  The
costumes, backdrops and projected images taken from actual Chinese
motifs were accurate enough to portray a realistic sense, as well as a
fairy tale atmosphere.

But still I wonder what Turandot would be like if it were sung in
Mandarin, since most people in the audience are not fluent in Italian
and read the sur-title translations anyways.  Vancouver Opera has
featured Asians playing the lead roles in past productions, such as Liping Zhang in last
year’s production Madama Butterfly, Jianyi Zhang in 1999’s La Traviata, Zheng Zhou in 2000’s Lucia de Lammermoor, or local Vancouverite Grace Chan

who performed in Lucia di Lammermoor, Romeo et Juliette, and Pirates of Penzance

One can only wonder
what will happen when Vancouver Opera attempts the Canadian Opera Iron Road about the Chinese labourers building the Canadian railway, or fully reflects onstage
Vancouver’s growing Asian population, and its reputation as gateway to
the Asian Pacific.

See also the Vancouver Opera “Insight” articles:
East Meets West and Falls in Love
by Gin-Chung Chan

Turandot: Innovative and Traditional by David Shefsiek

Fabled Singer – Audrey Stottler interviewed by Doug Tuck

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