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Thursday, November 01, 2007


Well my first opera experience was definitely a positive one. Opera is such an awesome spectacle; it's a highly-effective combination of a powerful symphony with actors on stage who possess incredible vocal talents. It is as if opera were really how drama is expressed to its maximum potential.

The storyline for this opera was rather straightforward, in that Turandot (played expertly by Margaret Medlyn) is a Chinese princess who embodies the spirit of a past queen who was brutally slain by her king on their wedding night. As such, Turandot has vowed never to take a husband unless he can solve three enigmatic riddles. When the story opens, we are treated to the grim spectacle of witnessing the most recent of the failed suitors - and there have been many - being put to death.

The protagonist of the story is a prince (who has no name at the beginning - unless you cheated and read the program!) who falls in love with her truly and covets not her glory or her riches or power - just her. With such noble intentions he sets out to win her over and take the test of the riddles, but if he fails as have the dozens before him, he'll be put to the ax.

When the curtain rose on the opening act, the audience took a collective gasp at the set: it was the stark wall of the city gate or perhaps a tower, and adorning it were dozens of photos of the men who had been executed for failing to solve the riddles of the princess. They were mug-shot style photos and all of the men had expressions that all displayed varying degrees of misery. There were no actors on the stage and the whole set was lit up in a severe, unforgiving white light.

Things did not bode well for our prince, so besotted with love was he for Turandot.

As the first act drew to a close, during which time the prince declared his love for the princess and that he wished to take the test, we experienced what I think was the most gripping and effective part of this opera.

There were three wise men (Ping, Pang, and Pong) who handle the affairs of the princess, including the grisly details of both having to prepare for a wedding (should the suitor succeed in solving the riddles) while simultaneously having to prepare for the ritual of execution, knowing full well that this was the more likely outcome. These men proved to be a sort of comic relief throughout the show and they had a benevolent streak as all they really wanted to do was either talk the prince out of his quest or at least pull for him to win so they could have a nice wedding and finally be done with their endless somber task.

After failing to persuade the prince to abandon his mad crusade, they get on with the preparations for the ritual of the test. The first order of business then was to take the prince's picture - so they could add it to their growing collection on the wall. So as the bloodthirsty masses are teeming around the prince, calling for his head, two of the wise men back the prince up to the wall. One of them then rushes out with an old-timey camera, the kind with the phosphorescent flash powder held aloft separately from the camera (sorry for the cumbersome description there, I just don't know what it's called!).

Anyways, I mention that because the energy on stage was building to a frenzy, between the chorus howling for blood and the orchestra playing passionately. As the prince stares into the camera, you notice he is wearing the same sort of uncertain, doomed expression borne on the faces of so many of the men whose pictures hang on the wall just above him.

The flash powder pops, bathing the prince's forlorn face in a harsh white light, and that is all you see as the stage lights quickly fade and the curtain comes running down.

I thought it was brilliant and I've never felt quite a rush of excitement like that during any sort of performance before!

(Well, as long as you don't count that one time I saw that burlesque act at a club called Forty Deuce in Los Angeles.... Oh, baby!)

Since this was my first opera (so far) I obviously cannot compare it to any others, but I would certainly recommend it to anyone. It took me a while to come around on the opera, and I only wish I had done it sooner. Yet there is no reason to rue the past - I am lucky to have an excellent opera house right here in Wellington and the New Zealand Opera is a well-run organization and I can't wait to see what's in store for next year!

One of my big goals now is to one day see a production of Wagner's Parsifal. It was his last opera that he wrote before his death and it is supposed to be his best, which is saying a lot given how magnificent Wagner operas seem to be. They have yet to perform a Wagner opera in New Zealand, although there is a society devoted to making that happen. Still, if it does happen it may not be for some years and would almost certainly be in Auckland. I do know that Wagner is done over in Aussie and Margaret Medlyn herself played the title role of Kundry about six years ago there.

Hopefully one day, not too far down the road, I'll be writing a review of my first-ever viewing of Parsifal!