'Turandot' at the Olympics - a gala evening, a musical disaster

Shipping an opera company across the Atlantic is a prohibitive financial undertaking. Undaunted, the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival invited the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, to make its United States debut here - at this unprecedented gathering of the finest in performing-arts talent from around the world. The publicized costs are $3.5 million, although some sources report the final bill will be closer to $5 million. Somehow, the festival folks even persuaded Covent Garden to unveil a new production of Puccini's ''Turandot'' on the company's opening night, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It can be seen here again tonight and Saturday, and then in early September at Covent Garden in London.

New productions are always fraught with problems, even under the best of conditions - i.e., with the most experienced design-direction team in one's own artistic home. Here, in an unfamiliar theater, the company was working with the entire design team for the first time. Placido Domingo is no stranger to the role of Calaf, but both the Turandot - Welsh soprano Gwyneth Jones - and the conductor - Sir Colin Davis, music director - were wrestling with Puccini's last opera for the first time.

For this country's first glimpse of an imposing musical institution, Covent Garden was courting disaster. Unfortunately, that word came to mind all too frequently throughout this gala evening, held in the presence of Princess Anne, and with a top price of $100 a seat.

We know from the quantities of British singers, directors, and designers that have poured into this country in the past decade that Italian opera is an alien art form to the British - a people weaned on oratorio musically, and and a refined unflappability socially. Perhaps that is why no one in a position of authority could see that this production - with its deeply flawed cast - would give the company an aura of imprecision, even chaos, in performance, as well as the gnawing feeling that no one was in charge. This entire venture should have been scrubbed at the first planning session, particularly given director Andrei Serban's unfortunate track record in opera - at least on these shores.

Puccini's final opera is his most exotic, colorful score, full of passion and panoply, love and barbarity. What we got on stage was a buffoon show that ignored the music altogether. Mr. Serban has chosen to set this in some pan-Asian theatrical milieu that purports to borrow on elements of No, Peking Opera, Kabuki, and other forms of Far Eastern performance. Serban has taken certain stereotypical fragments of these highly controlled, concentrated disciplines and tossed them carelessly onto a disheveled stage. At no moment in the course of this evening does Serban illuminate the plot, the character relationships, or the power structures of the drama.

Turandot, the icy quintessence of an aristocratic ruler, prances around in white makeup and kimono peignoirs of uncommon ugliness. Prince Calaf, the mysterious wanderer destined to melt the icy Princess, appears to have strolled in from a touring production of ''The Mikado.'' Sally Jacobs's overbearingly ugly unit set is, one surmises, meant to be a Chinese version of the Old Globe Theatre, although it looks more like the tiered courtyard of some shabby Chinese inn. The chorus sits in two balconies all night - robbing us of the chance to encounter this fine singing-acting ensemble in full glory.

One good or bad production will not change the face of any company very much. It is in matters of casting that an international company earns its profile, and the casting here was inexplicable. Placido Domingo, the glamour name in the cast , is no stranger to Calaf, though the role has never come naturally to him. These days, the voice sounds thin and forced, with strangulated high notes where free-ringing clarion sounds are demanded. Miss Jones has spent the last decade singing roles that have constantly overtaxed her soprano. The voice now cuts through the orchestra much as a siren cuts through the night air, and her sense of pitch has never been more precarious. Amazingly, this handsome woman was made unsightly in the makeup and costumes, and her Serban-ordered groveling (what princess would ever writhe this way?) precluded any attempt at creating a meaningful character.

With the exception of Robert Lloyd's sonorous Timur, the rest of the casting was distressingly inadequate. Yoko Watanabe's Liu was simply not of the caliber an international company should be offering. In the pivotal role of Ping, Turandot's chief minister (made into a court clown here), William Workman was inadequate, vocally and histrionically.

One may well ask how Sir Colin could have approved of all of this. But on further consideration, one realizes he has never been at his best in Italian opera. This ''Turandot'' was marred by ragged ensemble problems; he consistently set tempos the singers were unable to follow; he did not feel the Italianate pulse that animates the musical line; his sense of the theatrical proved persistently underscaled. So erratic was the playing, one could hardly get a fair estimate of the quality of the Covent Garden orchestra.

Fortunately, Benjamin Britten's ''Peter Grimes'' and Mozart's ''Die Zauberflote'' are the two other operas in the Covent Garden repertory here - two composers that bring out the very best in Sir Colin. From those evenings, we should get a far better sense of what this company is all about.

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