Director Benjamin Spierman imposes a human spin on the icy Turandot, the heartless Chinese princess, who is the central character in Giacomo Puccini’s last opera. Boheme Opera performs the work in the Patriots’ Theater of the Trenton War Memorial on Friday, November 3, and Sunday, November 5. The opera is sung in Italian with English supertitles.
The international troupe, Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, and 13 singers from the Trenton Children’s Chorus enhance the performance of a cast that includes soloists Othalie Graham as Princess Turandot, Benjamin Warschawski as the unknown Prince Calaf, and Olga Chernisheva as Liu, the young slave girl. Joseph Pucciatti conducts.
Many suitors court the beautiful Princess Turandot, who has posed three riddles, which the successful suitor must solve. Aspirants who fail will be beheaded. The anonymous Prince Calaf, overwhelmed by Turandot’s beauty, competes for her hand, ignoring the devoted slave girl, Liu, who loves him. Calaf solves the riddles. Turandot tries to renege on her promise to marry the successful riddle solver. However, her father, the Emperor, refuses to release her from her promise. Calaf announces that he will allow Turandot to behead him if anyone is able to find out his name. Turandot decrees that no one shall sleep until the name is discovered. Liu asserts that she alone knows Calaf’s name but refuses to reveal it. As Liu is being led away to be executed, she commits suicide. Calaf admonishes Turandot for her cruelty, fervently kisses her, and reveals his identity. Turandot melts and announces that his name is “Love.”
I worry that the slave girl, Liu, does not receive her proper recognition in the staging. She is, after all, a paragon of loyalty, and a selfless tragic heroine in the face of unrequited love. In a telephone interview from Amarillo, Texas, during a break in rehearsal for the “Falstaff” production he is conducting there, Spierman convinces me that he not only properly emphasizes the slave girl but finds complexity in the character of the Princess Turandot.
“It’s fascinating how Liu affects Turandot,” Spierman says. “Turandot is melted more by Liu than by Calaf. Seeing Liu’s love for Calaf moves Turandot down the road to accepting him. Liu may be the more active character but Turandot is central. There are places in the opera that show Turandot as a scared young girl, not a block of ice. She is ice at first. Then she is kissed and becomes warm. There is a point where Turandot moves toward the humanity that Calaf wants her to have and Liu is the catalyst, almost in a literal, scientific way. You add one element to another, and the first element is changed.”
Puccini died before completing the opera, and Franco Alfano, working from Puccini’s sketches, completed the score. The dramatically inclined Arturo Toscanini, conducting the premiere of “Turandot” in 1926, stopped in Act Three after the funeral music for Liu, put down his baton, and said to the audience, “The opera ends here because at this point the maestro died.”
Spierman is not inclined to follow Toscanini’s lead. “One of the challenges of the opera,” he says, “is to make it seamless, not to point out where Puccini ended. That’s noticeable enough without attracting attention to it.” He calls the work “an incomplete first draft.”
“There’s always a process of figuring out how a piece works after it has been written,” Spierman says. “Puccini was a composer who would fix things after he finished an opera. He didn’t go through that process of fixing and figuring out for ‘Turandot.’ In some ways the work is more unfinished than we think. It’s like a great unfinished novel.”
Still, Spierman is intrigued by Puccini’s structure of the piece, with its delayed appearance of Princess Turandot. “You don’t hear Turandot until the second scene of the second act, when she gives a suitor the thumbs down,” Spierman says. “Until then everybody talks about her. She doesn’t weigh in on things until Calaf has already committed himself to the riddles. It’s an interesting construction.
“One of the things I love most about these great works is helping a singer create a human being, a character who makes sense,” Spierman continues. “Just standing on stage and singing is nothing to sneeze at. But opera is an art form that incorporates all other art forms — music, drama, movement, and design.”
Spierman directed Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah” for Boheme Opera last season. The production stood out, in my mind, for its effective use of movement. “I’m not a choreographer,” he says. “I’m very conscious of pictures, of what the stage looks like, of how the action flows. I aim to create a sense of movement so that when there’s a stillness, the stillness is vivid. Our ‘Turandot’ production has a cast of 70. There are moments of stillness with many on stage, and with few on stage. It’s important for audience members to see different pictures and not be hypnotized by seeing the same picture for too long. If you look at the same thing for too long, your eye fixes. Even when there’s beautiful music, you drop to a different level. If opera is to be a theatrical experience, you have to keep the picture moving.”
Working with the Nai Ni Chen company for the Boheme “Turandot,” Spierman says, “I decide what I want them to do and Nai Ni gets into how to do it. Sometimes dancers are not terrific actors, but Nai Ni’s company knows how to act.”
Conscious of the shallow stage at the War Memorial, Spierman says, “The challenge is the risk of a two-dimensional feeling. I want to avoid a sense of looking at a painting. With Nai Ni people are at different levels, sitting, leaning, or standing. That gives a sense of depth and life.”
Spierman is also enthusiastic about the Trenton Children’s Chorus. “It’s always enjoyable to work with children. They often pay attention better than adults, and remember things better than adults. Growing up as an opera kid, I enjoyed it tremendously. Working with kids brings back great memories.”
An only child, Spierman was born the year after his parents founded the Bronx Opera Company in 1967. “The Bronx Opera is my sibling,” he says. His father continues to be the director of the company. His mother has sung, using the name Helene Williams professionally; she now works with accent reduction.
‘Growing up as an opera kid, my experience was different from my friends who ended up in opera,” Spierman says. “They came to opera at a certain point, or they heard something special. They sang in a church choir or got introduced to opera. For me opera was always a fact. I never needed to be introduced to it. Opera was like the corner store that you worked in. Being in a family involved with opera was like being in a family of cops or firemen.”
Conversation in the family veered off from opera, however. “We talked about the Yankees at dinner,” Spierman says. “Until I was eight, we lived four blocks from the stadium.” He lives in the Bronx at present and says, “Politics, sports, history, and my friends are among my interests.”
Spierman graduated from New York City’s Hunter College. “I got most of my training by doing,” he says. “Getting to direct and assist for the Bronx Opera was crucial for my career.” In his mid 20s, he spent the summers of 2000 and 2001 at Colorado’s Central City Opera. “I learned how to work in the trenches. I was very happy. I assisted good directors. I got to direct 10 opera scenes and a one-act opera, and I assisted on two operas.” Among his credits, Spierman also lists Indianapolis Opera. “I assisted three times and in 2004 they promoted me to directing.” His credits include a swathe of rarely-performed contemporary operas. “One of the challenges is making a living, and developing a career at the same time.”
During the 2006-’07 season Spierman directs both Boheme’s “Turandot” and its spring performance of Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” His trajectory includes Amarillo, Texas (Verdi’s “Falstaff”); Lakeland, Florida (Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’Amore”); Indianapolis, Indiana (Donizetti’s “Daughter of the Regiment”); and the Bronx, New York (Bizet’s “Carmen”).
Spierman find it irresistible to compare “Falstaff” with “Turandot.” He relishes both their dissimilarities and their common features. “‘Falstaff’ couldn’t be more different from `Turandot,’” he says. Then he adds, “It’s another last work of another great composer.”
Turandot, Friday, November 3, 8 p.m., and Sunday, November 5, 3 p.m., Boheme Opera, Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, Trenton. Puccini’s opera based on “One Thousand and One Days,” the Persian collection of stories. The production, set in China, features Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company and members of the Trenton Children’s Chorus. Pre-curtain talk, November 5, at 1:45 p.m. In Italian with supertitles. $28 to $68. 609-581-7200.