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Puccini died in 1924 before he finished Turandot, and SLO performs the version with the ending composed by Franco Alfano in 1926.

Setting Puccini's Turandot in another period

The Singapore Lyric Opera's version dates it all the way to the Bronze Age, allowing for a fantasy-like atmosphere.
Aug 19, 2016 5:50 AM

EUROPEAN productions of Puccini's Turandot have traditionally set the opera in the Ching or Ming dynasties, but the director of the Singapore Lyric Opera's (SLO) version dates it further back - all the way to the Bronze Age.

That's because the opera refers to a legendary China - of a time when the country was guided by astrology and the I-Ching, more than 3,000 years ago, says Lo King-Man, the former director of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts from 1993 to 2004.

"It was a raw, wild age, with a lot of mythology and early beliefs - so we can present a totally legendary and fantasy-like atmosphere for the opera's setting," says the 70-something. By that token, "those time periods (Ching or Ming dynasty) don't make sense".

Prof Lo has written, designed, directed and produced over 200 stage productions such as opera, drama, dance and musical theatre with performances in Asia, Europe and the United States.

Dramatic and unsentimental

This is SLO's re-staging of an opera they first performed in 2008, and was also directed by Prof Lo. Turandot is Italian composer Puccini's greatest achievement, he says, because it diverted from his usual sentimental style. "Turandot is a lot more dramatic and non-sentimental. The main character is an ice-cold princess - unlike the young girls that Puccini liked to depict, like in La Boheme and Madame Butterfly."

Turandot tells the tale of a merciless Chinese princess who refuses to let any man have her unless her suitor correctly answers three impossible riddles. Her hatred for men developed upon learning of an ancestress Lo-u-ling who was kidnapped and murdered by a foreign prince.

Ever since, princes from afar asking for her hand have failed and been executed. An exiled prince finally appears and enters into a battle of wits that stirs up a maelstrom of passion, transformation and sacrifice.

The other dramatic element of the opera is that Puccini died in 1924 before he finished it, and SLO performs the version with the ending composed by Franco Alfano in 1926. "The last 15 minutes is a magnificent ending and stylistically also very different from Puccini," Prof Lo describes.

Turandot was a popular opera in Asia in the 1990s, especially after Zhang Yi Mou's version in the Forbidden City in Beijing. Prof Lo himself directed three Turandot productions in Hong Kong, in a span of over 20 years.

"It's an expensive production to stage," he points out. SLO, incidentally, is re-using the costumes and sets from the 2008 production.

The cast

This time, the production will be energised by South Korean soprano Jee-hye Han as Turandot. She first sang the role of Turandot at the age of 28, at the Hungary State Opera in Budapest and was a huge hit. She has since performed in many prestigious houses with a repertoire comprising works by Beethoven, Wagner, Verdi and Puccini.

South Korean tenor Lee Jae Wook will reprise his role as Calaf, while Singaporean baritone William Lim sings the role of Timur. The second soprano role, Liu, is sung by China-born, Singapore permanent resident Li Yang.

Prof Lo, however, has the highest praise for the Singaporean singers in the chorus. "Everyone of them is better than the singers in 2008 - the singing standard is much improved with higher quality this time," he says, noting this after only the first rehearsal earlier this week.

"It's a very good cast and what's especially inspiring is the improvement of the singers in Singapore over the last few years," he concludes.

  • Singapore Lyric Opera will perform Puccini's Turandot from Aug 26, 27, 29 and 30, 8pm nightly, at Esplanade Theatre. Tickets and details from www.sistic.com.sg