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Tamara Wilson plays Turandot.Michael Cooper 2019

The Canadian Opera Company has kicked off its season of fairy tale-inspired operas, leading with Puccini’s final opera, Turandot. The story is so simple it draws you right in: the Princess Turandot, famed for her dazzling beauty and icy poise, will only marry a suitor who can solve her three riddles. One wrong answer, and the suitor pays with his life. And one day, a man comes along with an uncommon prowess in riddle-solving.

Puccini died before he could finish Turandot. When it premiered at La Scala in 1926, it was with the help of fellow composer Franco Alfano, who completed it using Puccini’s sketches. Next to his other hits – the life-like Tosca, the utterly romantic La Bohème, and the earthy and exotic Madama ButterflyTurandot certainly tells us about Puccini’s stylistic trajectory, or at least about the new direction he hoped to go. The score feels angular and removed, as hard-edged as the Italian composer really could sound; he urges his singers into relentless and thrilling vocal extremes, the kind of singing that might come from icy royalty, or cocky men who gamble with their lives.

And in the hands of director Robert Wilson, Turandot seems almost futuristic. Wilson’s production connects the characters of Turandot with his own affinity for vaudeville and the baroque faces of the commedia dell’arte. Visually, this Turandot is minimalistic, drawing our eye to sharp angles, flashes of saturated colours and, most importantly, to the mask-like faces of the singers onstage.

It’s an approach that sidesteps one of the great challenges with putting up Turandot, which is the work’s inherent old-school chinoiserie. Instead of yellow-face (thank goodness), we get the white, clown-adjacent faces of the commedia dell’arte – tokenism of an entirely different kind. Instead of orientalist slapstick as racially ignorant as what you’d find at opening night of The Mikado, we get a codified aesthetic of gait and posture drawn right from the European baroque. And as a bonus, if perhaps superfluous alteration, instead of those three ministers keeping their ridiculous names, Ping, Pang and Pong, Wilson changes them to the less contentious aliases, Jim, Bob and Bill. (Still laughable.)

Much care was put into presenting this Turandot without offence (and rightly so) but where it does slip though, is in the great trap of stylizing Puccini. His operas are so organic, growing out of a specific world and full of real, recognizable characters, that it’s a bit like trying to take the shower scene from Pyscho and put it in a wine cellar. It’s simply no longer the same scene.

Wilson’s design certainly sets up a world. It’s an untouchable environment, clearly separating royalty from everyone else. Turandot is the centre of it all, costumed in a brilliant spot of red to set her apart. Paired with the audience’s visual experience, and under the ingenious direction of maestro Carlo Rizzi, the orchestra too evokes architecture and monarchy and inbred coldness.

But no one can talk to each other. Not really. The first scene is spilling over with human emotion – father and son are reunited, slave girl is in love with her master – and yet everyone looks blankly forward, in parallel and never connecting. It costs the audience greatly. If we don’t see how Liu loves Calaf, we can’t care about the great sacrifice she makes in Act III – no matter how touching she is in soprano Joyce El-Khoury. If we don’t understand what strong force makes Calaf risk his life for Turandot’s hand (despite the heroic, throaty sound of tenor Sergey Skorokhodov), we don’t get to rejoice when he emerges victorious. And what in the world are we to make of Turandot’s final scene with Calaf, where they don’t look at each other, let alone touch? It’s utterly frustrating, to be held at arm’s length.

And yet, I still recommend it. Fresh from her riveting portrayal as Desdemona in the COC’s recent Otello, soprano Tamara Wilson is a complete force as the Princess Turandot. This is her first go at this role, and she is a study in the power of sound, a column of ice that’s totally thrilling to hear. Best of all, she carved out space to show us a real person in Turandot, as limiting as the production is. The raising of her eyebrow, the pursing of her lips, the subtle posture changes that show us when the Princess finds her world beginning to crack.

Wilson’s performance is enough to get you thinking not about commedia dell’arte or chinoiserie, but of something much more interesting about this opera. Turandot, with her station and power, is as untouched as she could be from the confines of a patriarchal system. She protects herself from men with her almost mythical promise of marrying only a riddle-solver, fending off any questions about her status as a single woman. Imagine then, the terror she would feel when Calaf pierces that wall, and Turandot finds herself without a safety net.

I didn’t expect to come away from any of Robert Wilson’s production with sympathy and a shared fear for Turandot. And to be sure, those moments of emotional connection had everything to do with Tamara Wilson. The rest, I imagine, is a looming blank slate best left to the observer.

The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Turandot runs at the Four Seasons Centre through October 27.

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