When Dame Joan Sutherland finally left Opera Australia 15 years ago, they had to find a new star, a new angle, a new anything -“ and they found it in a new sort of opera director.
Dancer/ choreographer Graeme Murphy was their bold choice. Murphy then, and until just last week when he announced his resignation, was the artistic director of the Sydney Dance Company. His job was to defy the old truism that opera singers don’t usually move too well, let alone dance and act.
With this revival of his sumptuous production of Puccini’s Turandot, Murphy’s skills at stagecraft and expressive ensemble movement are on perfect show.
He is well partnered with the rich imagination (and budget) of the late costume and stage designer Kristian Fredrikson. No wonder Murphy kissed him up in the heavens at the opening night curtain call.
Together they create a swirling, ever-moving world of ancient China, a surreal nightmare world where the icy Princess Turandot takes her revenge on men by beheading any wooing prince who seeks to solve her impossible riddles.
Murphy’s courtiers and huge choruses constantly undulate, mourning the loss of their China to this bloody terrorism of Turandot. Beefy near-naked executioners dispatch each noble victim -¦ until the arrival of our hero Calaf, determined to vanquish our ice maiden.
Calaf though almost didn’t arrive. With just 48 hours to rehearse, tenor Dongwhin Shin was flown in from Chicago to replace an ailing Dennis O’Neill. But audience acclaim at his success was the stuff of opera legends.
So too was the high diva performance of America’s Jennifer Wilson as Turandot, whose entrances and musical signature are spine-tingling. Her hefty terror makes a fine contrast to the beautiful lyricism of Hye Seoung Kwon as the sad sack slave girl sacrificing everything for her unrequited love of Calaf.
Conductor Patrick Summers and Murphy keep up the musical and theatrical pace of Puccini’s opera, sweeping away the usual operatic slumps and dull moments.
Written just before his death in 1924, Puccini’s score has a familiar modernity, even acerbity, but dominating all is his golden melodic line. For the opera fan and the novice, this opera with this extravagant but precise production is the one to see.
Turandot is at the Sydney Opera House until 12 September. And celebrating its 50th anniversary, Opera Australia this Sunday is holding a free open day at its Opera Centre workshops in Surry Hills from 11:30am.