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It seems too long since the curtain came down on Otello and La Bohème last spring. Last night at the Four Seasons Centre, the Canadian Opera Company’s first offering of the new season was a brilliant and daring new production of Giacomo Puccini’s final opera, Turandot

It has been fifteen years since the COC mounted the opera. This new striking production by the American Robert Wilson, the renowned multi-disciplinary artist, is a co-production with Teatro Real Madrid, Houston Grand Opera and the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre of Vilnius. The production premièred in Madrid in 2018. Wilson has teamed up with Co-Director Nicola Panzer, Co-Set Designer Stephanie Engein and Co-Lighting Designer John Torres to create a stunningly modern, minimalistic set with clean lines and striking colours created with spectacular lighting.

Turandot, is essentially a lavish fairytale set in a mythical China; it is what we think of when we think of opera: love, death, prince and princess, exoticism and of course, the opulent music of the masterful composer at the height of his powers. In today’s world, the difficulties of sexual violence and racism in the storyline have challenged directors. Wilson solved the issues as best he could with symbolic movements and sets and lighting that give a universal atmosphere. The names of the ‘comedia dell’arte’ characters Ping, Pang and Pong have been replaced with Bill, Bob and Jim wearing black tuxedo suits. The kiss forced on Turandot is blown from a distance. Liù’s death is shown by a change in lighting. This is definitely not the Cecil B Demille extravaganza of a Franco Zeffirelli. Nevertheless it has a wonderfully majestic quality with strong colour and light that invites  fresh interpretations from a discerning audience.

As with all Puccini, its success depends on the music: that is, outstanding soloists, a robustly magnificent orchestra and in this opera a chorus that is on stage for almost half of the time. I can’t imagine a better cast of singers. Tamara Wilson was Turandot. Her voice carried easily over the large orchestra to every corner of the hall. Her singing was brilliant. This was Wilson’s first appearance as Turandot, but not her first appearance with the COC. The American veteran has a busy schedule this season with major opera companies in Europe and North America singing Verdi and Wagner roles. She will be back to sing the title role of Aida with the COC in April 2020.

Joyce El-Khoury played the slave Liù who has fallen in love with Calef and chooses to save his life resulting in her own demise. Her magnificent soprano voice sparkled with intensity in the highest and lowest ranges. El-Khoury is also familiar to COC audiences, having sung the role of Tatyana in Eugene Onegin just last year. This season will take her to some of the grandest stages of Europe. Next spring, she will appear as Rose in a world première performance of Awkenings by Tobias Picker and Aryeh Lev Stollman at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

The famous ‘Nessun Dorma’ aria, that Turandot audiences anticipate until it arrives in Act III was sung convincingly by the Russian dramatic tenor Sergey Skorkhodov. Skorkhodov is the archetypical operatic heroic figure and does not disappoint in this opera in the role of Calef who  risks all for the love of Turandot. It is not a surprise that he is a regular on the biggest stages of the world. His debut with the COC will be followed this season as Erik in Der Fliegende Holländer at the Met.

Other prominent and impressive voices in last night’s cast included bass-baritone Joel Allison as a mandarin, David Leigh as Timur, and Adrian Thompson as the Emporor Altoum. Adrian Timpau as Jim/Ping, Julius Ahn as Bob/Pang, and Joseph Hu as Bill/Pong were each vocally strong while providing comic relief and satirical comment on the story.

This opera places a great deal of demands on the chorus. There is sublimely beautiful moments and others with raw intensity. Price Family Chorus Master Sandra Horst had the 58 singers impeccably well-trained.

The impact of this opera cannot be felt without a fabulous orchestra, and thankfully, the contract disputes ended before the beginning of the new season. Conductor Carlo Rizzi gave spirited and detailed  leadership. From where I was sitting, I could see at times that he was mouthing the words of the chorus parts. A member of the orchestra mentioned to me that his conducting was extremely precise and that he new just what he wanted from the orchestra, high praise from within the ranks.

Turandotwill continue at the Four Seasons Centre with performances on October 9, 15, 17, 19, 23, 25, and 27. Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka will open on October 12 with performances continuing through October 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, and 26, 2019.

(foreground, left to right, in white) Sergey Skorokhodov as Calaf,
​Joyce l-Khoury as Liù, and David Leigh as Timur in the
Canadian Opera Company’s production of 
Turandot, 2019
​Photo credit: Michael Cooper

Tamara Wilson (foreground) as Turandot in the Canadian Opera Company
​Production of Turandot, 2019; Photo credit: Michael Cooper

​​Review by David Richards
oronto ON October 5th 2019

Tamara Wilson as Turandot in the Canadian Opera Company’s
​production of Turandot, 2019
Photo credit: Michael Cooper

COC's Turandot: ​a stunning new production to begin an exciting new season!