Review: Turandot, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (2016)

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Turandot is without a doubt one of the most popular and enduring operas created, so naturally it was only a matter of time until Handa Opera took the seminal story and performed it against the backdrop of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge and Opera House. In its fifth year of the outdoor opera season, Turandot comes out all guns blazing with the perfect balance of star quality and emotion to delight even the most sneering of operagoers.

Chen Shi-Zheng has taken the directors chair in this production, and he brings his own experience and history with Chinese theatre and high budget productions to this opera performance, with easily and gusto. The injection of an experienced and capable director allows the show to elevate into a spectacle without any cultural cringe that audiences are usually privy to at the opera. But it’s this direction, in conjunction with a fantastic cast, astonishing chorus, and exquisitely detailed costumes, set design and staging that allow Turandot to soar and rank among the best for Handa Opera.

With a huge Chinese dragon protruding from the stage, the set up is immaculate and profoundly bold. It is intrepid and eye catching, with images and animations projected along its side in perfect clarity. At one point the dragon even breathes fire – one of the production’s most dazzling features. On the opposite side of the stage stands a gallant pagoda where Turandot appears above the audience and crowd, preaching in fantastic magnitude and bringing gravitas to the production. Sadly the platform, which moves up and down, shakes uncontrollably throughout use and loses the elegant ascension Turandot is worthy of.

Shi-Zheng’s choreography is meticulous, with all spaces being filled during the dances. Indeed the layout of the set is superb, with dances filling the bottom of the stage and cranes, towers and fireworks capturing the attention of the audience above the scene. At no point does the show feel gaudy or exploitative of Chinese culture, but rather a twist on the traditional story with careful precision. Naturally fireworks are released after the classic and hauntingly beautiful Nessum Dorma is performed, with the audience expecting little less despite attention being drawn from Riccardo Massi’s exquisite voice.

Opera Australia have hit a jackpot once more with the show, with the principal performers, chorus and orchestra in perfect sync. Serbian soprano, Dragana Radakovic is captivating as Turandot and is among some of the best performers to take the role in recent years. Every note is arresting and strong. Italian tenor Riccardo Massi stylishly takes on the role of Prince Calaf, with emotion and vocal strength on display. His Nessum Dorma silenced the audience and he is certainly a highlight of the show, with an equally great acting ability and stage presence to compliment his voice. Luke Gabbedy, Benjamin Rasheed and John Longmuir do their best Ping, Pang and Pong impressions with zest, but it is Hyeseoung Kwon in her role of Liu that stuns and brings a tear to the eye. My standing ovation on opening night was for her.

Handa Opera are constantly trying to be bigger and better and there are valid concerns that artistic excellence and emotional strength can be compromised in higher budget productions. But Turandot is utterly captivating and a marvel to watch, without losing the emotion and lyrical beauty that has made it so popular. Rather than sticking to the same director with the same vision, the producers made a wonderful decision to bring in a director with strong aesthetics, values and ability to create a refreshing take on an old classic. Turandot will please both regular theatregoers as well as newbies, exactly as the arts should do.

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