So far they have all looked their parts: Adria Firestone was a believably seductive Carmen, Vivica Genaux an alluring Isabella in Italian Girl — and both women looked smashing in their second appearances in The Conquistador. But Firestone’s singing was distinctly second rung, and Genaux’s lovely light mezzo-soprano got lost in the large auditorium.
What has been missing from the first three productions of the San Diego Opera’s season so far is a truly major soprano voice — a talent so large that it need make no excuse for not being the exact physical type. That’s coming our way this month, however, when the SDO mounts Puccini’s Turandot with the phenomenal British soprano Jane Eaglen in the title role. Audiences may have to exercise some willing suspension of disbelief to accept her as a femme fatal; yet Eaglen is the most important new star appearing here this season. She is quickly escalating into the operatic firmament, with major engagements worldwide and an important recording contract with Sony.
The Chinese “Ice Princess” Turandot chooses her suitors by forcing them to answer a series of three riddles. If the suitors fail, it’s off with their heads. Eaglen told me she wants to make a human being out of this singing serial killer. “When I first tried the role [in Seattle], I was really keen on trying various ways to keep Turandot from being just a horrible person that you hated,” she said. “If you look at her too much just on the surface, she’s just a nasty piece of work, really. But I think she’s been brought up to believe that men are the aggressors and users of women. She doesn’t know any better.”
What makes Prince Calaf so determined to get her? Drunk with Turnadot’s beauty, Calaf takes up the Ice Princess’s challenge, answers all the tricky questions, wins the lady as his prize, and ultimately converts her into a loving bride. “Calaf comes into the picture,” says Eaglen, “not to try to win Turnadot by force, but to prove to her that he’s not like all the rest of the men she’s heard about. Both characters have the opportunity to stop [the fatal contest of riddles]. Neither of them are blameless. When Calaf has got the last riddle right and Turandot realizes what’s happening, she’s actually rather scared. She’s not prepared for this to happen.
“There’s quite an interesting parallel between her reaction and Brunnhilde’s in the last act of Wagner’s Siegfried. After Siegfried awakes her [in her ring of magic fire], Brunnhilde at first wants him to leave her alone: Like Turnadot, she doesn’t want to lose her special powers. [She is transformed from a warrior maiden into a passionate loving woman.] She must lose them if she lets herself be overcome by a man in any shape or form. Both Brunnhilde and Turandot sort of argue, ‘Leave me be!’.”
Eaglen specializes in two seemingly very different composers — Wagner and Bellini. Both, however, require a talent for a sustained legato line. Bellini fans thrilled recently to Eaglen’s Norma with the Los Angeles Opera. Wagner fans throughout the world are eagerly awaiting Eaglen’s attempt at Tristan und Isolde. “Isolde is a role I’ve been waiting for,” she told me. Now the situation couldn’t be more perfect. In Seattle next season, Eaglen will be paired with the magnificent Canadian heldentenor, Ben Heppner. On the projected Sony complete recording, the Tristan will be Placido Domingo. [Project canceled since this writing. Sorry! D.G.] There’s even a complete Ring being discussed. “There are such high expectations for me,” she confesses. “That’s hard, but I try not to think about it.”
Opera Pacific patrons have already been disappointed by Eaglen: Due to a painful shoulder injury, she had to cancel Turandot at Segerstrom Hall earlier this year. Some people thought her real problem was that she was trying to do too many things at once: Turandot and Norma performances overlapping in LA and Orange County. But one thing Eaglen has got is plenty of stamina. “Long operas don’t worry me at all,” she said. “The longer I sing, the more I like it and the better I seem to get. I feel at the end of Wagner’s Goetterdaemmerung [the final installment of Wagner’s Ring] as if I could begin all over again.”
For Eaglen, Turandot is a shorty. “It is only 18 minutes of singing when all is said and done,” she says. “It’s less than the whole of Wagner’s ‘Immolation Scene’ [in Goetterdaemmerung]. The hardest thing about Turandot is you feel as if you’re walking a tightrope with it. The vocal line is very high, terribly exposed, and physically you have to deal with five-inch metal fingernails and costumes that have 20-foot trains. With these nails you can’t pick up your dress. It’s limiting.”
Eaglen objects to people who call Turandot “just a lot of screaming. “I think everything should be sung beautifully,” she said. “I think with Turandot there’s no more justification for screaming than for any other role. Once the riddles are over, it’s quite a different sort of patter anyway. People are often surprised. They ask, ‘Why did you sing that bit so quietly?’ And I say, ‘You know, it’s really weird, but Puccini actually does write things piano in the score. There’s all that limpid vocal writing and you can’t sing it any other way.”
Eaglen hopes for a career as a Wagner specialist. “That is what I was meant to sing. I live the music. It’s a real honor to be able to sing it. I want to for the next 30 years. I’m still young. Kirstin Flagstad [history’s greatest Wagnerian soprano according to many critics] was actually older than I when she started. And so was Birgit Nilsson [another candidate for history’s greatest.]”
The sets for San Diego’s Turandot have already been seen in San Francisco and Chicago. (The SF production was broadcast nationally on PBS television two years ago.) Realism is certainly the last thing trendy painter/scene designer David Hockney had in mind when he created these eye-popping sets. Prepare to be blasted with reds, blues and purples. Nothing looks real in the slightest, but it’s absolutely unforgettable. And it’s likely Eaglen’s performance will be the same
By David Gregson © 1997