Edmonton Opera’s Turandot Triumphs as a Western Paean to Mythic China

by Sarah Haeubl

Edmonton Opera’s 2016-2017 season kicks off this week with the formidable Turandot, Giacomo Puccini’s final masterpiece. Completed after Puccini’s death by Franco Alfano and premiered before Italian audiences in 1926, Turandot exists in the modern world as something of a paradox, with timeless musical appeal and universal themes, but an aesthetic that is clearly a product of its time, and the Orientalist trends that dominated Western art in Puccini’s day. Credit for the success of Edmonton Opera’s production goes to its creative team, who were able to focus on the former while tastefully mitigating the latter in their realization of this grand epic, as well as the uniformly exceptional performances of cast and orchestra that brought Puccini’s masterpiece to life.

Set in a fictional China, Turandot is the story of the eponymous princess with a heart of ice, who beheads all would-be suitors who fail to answer her three riddles. Our hero Prince Calaf, smitten by Turandot’s cruel beauty, is determined to conquer her challenges, thaw her heart, and win her love over the course of three acts. Central themes of the opera – the need for balance and harmony between love and hate, life and death, hot and cold – are represented by the ultimate union of these two diametrically opposed characters, evoking the Taoist philosophy of yin and yang.

Canadian-American soprano Othalie Graham, who has sung the titular role on numerous occasions, commands the stage with a crystalline high register that pierces the thick texture of the chorus and orchestra. Graham meets her vocal match in Canadian tenor David Pomeroy (Calaf), whose powerful, earthy tones supply the yang to her yin. Pomeroy’s superb delivery of the famous “Nessun Dorma” aria in Act III, which moved the audience to applause even before its conclusion, was a notable highlight of the performance.

The Edmonton Opera Chorus is in fine form in Turandot, particularly considering the level of involvement of the chorus required of this opera, and they fill the stage as writhing mobs and gilded courtiers while also giving voice to Puccini’s sublime harmonies. Thankfully, they wear ambiguous white masks rather than yellowface make-up – a critical show of good taste on the part of Scenery & Costume Designer Allen Charles Klein, whose respectful engagement with Chinese dress and imagery transcends opera’s unfortunate legacy of stereotyping and appropriation.

In Turandot, Puccini expands his post-romantic compositional palette with traditional Chinese folk melodies and evocative percussion instruments to create authentic colours. Conductor David Stern leads the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra to explore its expressive limits, from the tormented dissonance of the work’s opening to the lush lyricism of some of Puccini’s later melodies.

In spite of Edmonton Opera’s masterful execution (if you’ll pardon the pun) of this challenging and controversial work, Puccini’s Turandot carries fundamental flaws stemming from its Orientalist origins that deserve reflection from its modern audiences. For example, it is impossible to ignore the tired old trope of the cold and beautiful “dragon lady” who must be “conquered,” upon which the basic plot of the opera hinges, which reeks of sexism and racism. Similarly, the comic relief trio of “Ping, Pang, and Pong” – played in this production by three talented Caucasians, no less – come across as crude even within the context of Puccini’s earnest world, and are more likely to cause discomfort rather than laughter in contemporary opera-goers. Ultimately, Turandot may be a fairy-tale about love between two opposing forces, but today, it has as much to say about the tumultuous relationship between Western art and Eastern culture as it does about the relationship between its protagonists.

See Turandot at the Jubilee Auditorium:

Saturday, October 22 – 8:00 PM

Tuesday, October 25 – 7:30 PM

Thursday, October 27 – 7:30 PM


Photography by Nanc Price.