Red Is the Color of My True Love’s Blood
The Conflicting Desires of Turandot
This Turandot is the most spectacular non-Ring spectacle I’ve ever seen at Seattle Opera. Yes, I did mean to say “spectacular” and “spectacle” in the same sentence because the visual elements in this production of the Puccini opera present themselves as if twice-over, über-ly, all caps, bold-faced, and underscored. This story is about excess, about how fantasy can be either the end or the beginning of us all, how fantasy can turn to a passion that will either help us find ourselves or get us real lost.
After a super-express overture that takes about as long as a hiccup, the curtain rises on a fantasy version of the Forbidden City of Peking, and you see red red red red red. In the West, red stands for passion, romance, and gore. The main set is a ginormous, dark red Moon Gate, like the circular entryway of traditional Chinese gardens; the ground is a circular set of stairs stained red with the blood of Princess Turandot’s many, many unsuccessful suitors. Downstage, a mob of red-clad peasants calls for the executioner to behead the icy princess’s most recent hapless beau. In China, red is supposed to represent good luck. Hard to imagine much good luck in a world so violently red. However…
Enter a stumbling, dowdy slave girl in a pale green/beige robe and her dowdy old-man companion, as drab as a pair of hens. The old man gets knocked over, and a stranger kindly helps him up. Turns out the stranger is the old man’s long-lost son (the Unknown Prince), the old man himself being a deposed king. The loyal slave girl, Liu, is in love with the son, having been smitten since he smiled at her once ages ago. Theirs are the loves of the dispossessed, the quiet and patiently loyal. Their loves aren’t red.
But all that’s about to change for the Prince. As Liu fell for the Prince because he smiled at her, the Prince falls for Turandot because… she condemns another guy to death? Yes. This is a fairy tale about the madness of passion, a simple thing like a smile or a gesture, or maybe something sort of complex, like timing, or maybe something really complex, like how the desire for justice can get screwed up with the desire for just plain nasty vengeance, and/or how you can think you are taking on someone else’s mission but then maybe you keep hanging on to that for too long, until it kind of turns you into a monster (Turandot). Or how it can maybe turn you into a saint (Liu). Or maybe how it just happens to you, you can’t stop yourself (the Unknown Prince), and maybe if you are really lucky, you might actually get what you want. These different wants, these different reds, may differ in shade or tone, but not in depth.
The production team of André Barbe (set and costume design) and Renaud Doucet (stage direction/choreography) have made everything in this Turandot point to the same end, an experience of, if not 50, at least a whole lot of shades of red. It is amazingly cohesive and effective.
There are several standout performances. The vocals of tenor Antonello Palombi (gold cast, the Unknown Prince) are rich and supple. The direction of the imperial ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong (Patrick Carfizzi, Julius Ahn, Joseph Hu) is wildly inventive, often hilarious, and once tear-jerkingly tender. Lori Phillips (gold cast) had moments of real majesty as Turandot. Marcy Stonikas (silver cast), vocally and physically captured Turandot’s abrupt emotional about-face. A graduate of the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program, Stonikas is also slated to sing Fidelio in October. Keep an eye on her career. It may skyrocket.