For shear spectacle “Turandot” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago is worth seeing.
Chinese Princess, Turandot, has proffered a challenge to all eligible Princes, that he who can successfully answer three riddles asked by her shall win her love. Unsuccessful suitors will forfeit their life by beheading at sunrise.
The bigger question is whether Turandot is actually interested in love or is she more interested in exacting revenge on all men for the death of her ancestor Princess Lo-u-Ling?
Enter Prince Calaf, a stranger who is immediately smitten by Turandot. He cannot resist the challenge in spite of the pleading of the Ping, Pang and Pong whose duty it is to prepare all matters related to either the execution or the wedding.
Weary of the many deaths, the trio attempts to lure Calaf with the promise of hundreds of other beautiful women but to no avail. Neither can Calaf be dissuaded by his father’s faithful slave woman Liu whose love for him is pure and deep, based on the fact that he smiled at her.
With an impressive, if somewhat cliché, set by production designer Allen Charles Klein and lighting by Chris Maravich, once the curtain is up and the chorus begins to sing the audience is immediately drawn to the performance.
The large lighted glass sphere center stage adds to the exotic illusion of the intersection of heaven and earth as well as the theme of hot and cold. The use of wood, moonlight and lantern-light combined with the muted tones of the costumes contributes to a feeling of a mythological ancient Chinese experience with an overarching sense of foreboding.
Soprano Amber Wagner who appears in the title role has a powerful voice that soars above the entire company providing the character of Turandot with a commanding vocal presence the role requires.
Unfortunately, she has difficulty projecting the complex dichotomy required to be a convincing alluring “ice princess.” This was compounded by her costume being the only one, including the headdress, that seemed inappropriate and did not contribute to the realization of the essence of her character.
Stefano La Colla as Calaf in his Lyric debut is charming though he never really commands the stage. In Act One he was lost in the crowd and at times he seemed unsure where he should be. In spite of that, the much anticipated “Nessun Dorma” in Act Three does not disappoint.
Also appearing in her Lyric debut is soprano Maria Agresta as Liu who offers what is perhaps the most dramatic performance. This is due in large part to the sympathetic nature of the role itself but also to her sensitive portrayal and beautiful voice.
Ping, Pang, and Pong played by Zachary Nelson, Rodell Rosel, and Keith Jameson are veterans of the Lyric who provide wonderful energy and comic relief.
The Lyric chorus and orchestra are outstanding as always. At times the stage is crowded with more than 75 singers including the addition of more than 20 members of the Chicago Children’s Chorus who contribute another level of texture to the vocal tapestry.
Puccini’s score riddled with Asian influences is not driven by melody but is rather a complex nuanced series of compositions more reminiscent of a symphony. This really gives the orchestra an opportunity to shine because they are as important as the singers not simply accompanists.
The third act is dominated by “Nessun Dorma” which is perhaps the most melodious number. It is cleverly reprised for the finale leaving the production with a powerful musical finish and the audience with a tune we can all hum on the way out the door.
This “commercial” ending is a bit out of step and perhaps belies the fact that composer Giacomo Puccini died before he could finish the opera.
The story has a few moral and ethnocentric issues that may be considered to be in conflict with modern sensibilities. This can be a distraction for some but consider using it as an opportunity for thoughtful contemplation and discussion of social change while you simply enjoy the music and the shear spectacle of a grand tradition.
“Turandot” is at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr., Chicago, through January 27, 2018. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes with two intermissions. For tickets and more information visit Lyric Opera.
Guest Reviewer: Reno Lovison
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