Hockney’s Exotic, Whimsical ‘Turandot’ Returns with a Strong Cast

By Elsa Tranter
9/12/2017

Photos by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

 Soprano Martina Serafin as Turandot

Soprano Martina Serafin as Turandot

“Turandot” is a real crowd pleaser as a season opener for San Francisco Opera and this year wasno exception.  There are many reasons for this—it has lavish sets, exotic costumes, big chorus, beautiful music.  Only the story is a little awkward for a modern audience, but not many people seem to mind.  This was Puccini’s final opera, left incomplete when he died in 1924; the final scenes were completed by Standard Alfano (not noted for much else in his life and not usually recognized for this opera either). 

The opera is adapted from Persian stories and the title character is a daughter of Turan, a town in central Asia.  There have been endless debates about the pronunciation—to say the final T or not.  If it’s Turandohkt (or daughter of Turan) then it makes sense to say the T, even though that is hard to sing in Italian.  Others sing/say it with DO ending (as in the first note of the scale).  But this is a digression. The plot involves Chinese princess (yes story is transported to China) being given in marriage to the suitor who can answer three riddles (failing to answer them leads to death).  Prince Calaf succeeds but then gives the ice maiden a chance to maintain her chastity if she can find out his name.

The set design is a 25 year old one by David Hockney, the prolific British artist, and was jointly produced with Lyric Opera of Chicago.  All the sets and costumes were made in San Francisco and have been freshly painted and refurbished.  They are quite lavish and suitably exotic and fill the large stage beautifully.  Hockney used reverse perspective after studying Chinese scroll painting, so that the images seem to come toward the viewer rather than go off into the distance as in regular perspective drawing.  Hockney liked the fact that the opera was not verismo—it allowed for some fantasy in the design.  The color is mainly red, the color of the walls of the Forbidden City and there’s much in the design to emphasize the cruelty of life in mythical times.  This year marks the fifth time the production has been used in San Francisco; there are 12 performances this fall so many opportunities to see and hear it.

On to the performers.  There are four main characters:  the title role is sung by Austrian soprano Martina Serafin; she is a beautiful icy princess, one who would definitely inspire love at first sight, unlike some other sopranos from years past who were less physically compelling.  Her voice isa bit harsh and her body language somewhat stiff, neither of which is a bad thing in a cold and arrogant princess.   Her voice is right on the money in terms of singing the notes and getting across her points.  Her big aria in Act one, “In quest reggia” (“in this palace”), drew cheers and applause. She will reprise the role at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Zurich Opernhaus this season.

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 Tenor Brian Jagde as Calaf, with Ping, Pang & Pong

Tenor Brian Jagde as Calaf, with Ping, Pang & Pong

Her Calaf is American tenor Brian Jagde, singing the role for the first time.  He is physically compelling and his voice loud and true, if lacking the character and emotion of some of his more famous predecessors and his acting is a bit stilted.  Still, no complaints in the balance of the two voices, even if the chemistry isn’t compelling.  The big aria for him is “Nessen Dorma” (“none shall sleep”) at the beginning of Act III.  Everyone in the world (or at least everyone in the opera house) knows that aria from Luciano Pavarotti’s recordings and live performances and it was evident from the audience sing-alongs (mostly under their breaths, fortunately) that were heard on Tuesday night.  The climax of the opera, when Calaf kisses Turandot and she immediately melts and changes utterly, is a bit far-fetched, but in opera anything goes. There’s a happy ending in this one and that’s nothing to sneeze at in these times of so many heartaches and troubles.

The other main duo is the unlikely pair of Liu, the unfortunate servant, sung with great acclaim by American soprano Toni Marie Palmertree and Timur, the old father of Calaf, sung by American bass Raymond Aceto who portrays his blind character with much emotion. Alas, poor Liu must sacrifice her life for the man she loves (Calaf), but isn’t that always the way in opera.  And blind Timur goes off into the night holding the hand of the dead Liu. 

 Soprano Toni Marie Palmertree as Liu, Bass Raymond Aceto as Timur

Soprano Toni Marie Palmertree as Liu, Bass Raymond Aceto as Timur

Rounding out the cast are the comic trio of Ping, Pang and Pong, sung by baritone Joo Won Kang, tenor Julius Ahn and tenor Joel Sorenson;  and finally bass-baritone Brad Walker as a Mandarin and tenor Robert Brubaker as the Emperor Altoum.  The P P and P trio acquit themselves well in their comic relief antics and their costumes are suitably garish! The San Francisco Opera chorus, led by chorus master Ian Robertson, does a fine job of both singing and filling up the stage with their synchronized movements through many choral scenes.  This group is quite remarkable for the results they achieve in performance after performance. 

The San Francisco Opera orchestra was ably conducted by Music Director Nicola Luisotti, who is beginning his final season with this company.  He has been very popular and will be missed when he departs. Whoever takes his place will have big shoes to fill.

The stage direction is by Garnett Bruce and costumes are designed by Ian Falconer.  David Hockney, the original designer, celebrates his 80th birthday this year with many exhibits of his work throughout the US and internationally.

 Turandot, Act 3 finale

Turandot, Act 3 finale

Performances continue on September 15, 21, 30 at 7:30 and September 24 at 2:00.

The opera returns in November and December with six more performances (November 18, 25, 28, Dec 6 and 9 at 7:30 and December 3 at 2:00.  The cast for these performance will be led by Swedish soprano Nina Stemme in the title role, American soprano Leah Crocetto as Liu, Brian Jagde reprising the role of Calaf and American bass Soloman Howard in his company debut as Timur.  This cast promises additional excitement and will be worth a second visit.


Elsa Tranter is a Bostonian who has lived in Berkeley for over 40 years and has been an opera goer for most of those years.  She worked as a graduate student adviser at UC Berkeley and still attends Cal Performances regularly.  Her favorite composer is Wagner and her favorite opera is Tristan und Isolde.