07 Feb 2011

Turandot, San Diego

The original story that formed the basis for the libretto of Puccini’s opera Turandot told of a Mongolian princess who insisted that any prospective husband endeavor to win a wrestling match with her.

In 1710, French author François Pétis de la Croix made her into Turandot, the so-called ice princess, who ordered the beheading of prospective consorts who could not solve riddles she posed. Half a century later, Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi transformed the Pétis story into a work for the theater.*

Turandot was Giacomo Puccini’s last opera. He first looked at it in March 1920 when he met with librettists Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni to choose a subject for his next work. Having selected Turandot, he composed most of it between 1921 and 1924, a time when impressionism along with the sounds of Claude Debussy and Richard Strauss were most influential.** When he had completed all but the last few minutes of the score, he went abroad for cancer treatment and, unfortunately, died of a heart attack there. The finale was completed by Franco Alfano and the new opera was premiered at La Scala in Milan on Sunday 25 April 1926, seventeen months after Puccini’s death. It was very quickly accepted by European and American theaters and was performed in New York, Vienna, Dresden and Buenos Aires during the same year as its world premiere.*** It was seen in London the following year. China, however, has taken many decades to accept this work because it once thought the libretto painted its people in a poor light. Performances there did not take place until the 1990s.

On 29 January, San Diego Opera opened its 2011 season with a gala performance of Turandot featuring brightly colored sets by the well-known artist David Hockney. Similarly colored costumes were designed by Ian Falconer. Although the scenery is stylized in a simplified Chinesemanner, for the San Diego Opera performances, inventive, Iranian-born stage director Lotfi Mansouri had his principals move with realistic reactions to the story’s situations.

For Lise Lindstrom, Turandot has become a signature role ever since her Met debut last season. After San Diego, she will sing it at La Scala and the Deutsche Oper in Berlin before returning to the United States and yet another rendition of the role at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. She sings it with a smooth delivery that belies the difficulty of the part. Her radiant technique is reminiscent of Birgit Nilsson, but although her voice had a great deal of gleaming steel that could cut through the orchestral tapestry like a laser, this ice princess melted into a passionate lover in Act III. She was not the only soprano star on that stage, however.

Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho, who has been heard in San Diego as Maria Stuarda, was a magnificently poignant Liù. She really brought tears to everyone’s eyes when she sang her aria, ‘Tu che di gel sei cinta’. She is a lyric soprano with a rainbow of warm, glowing colors in her voice and the ability to involve the emotions of the audience with her stagecraft.

Turandot_SD_2011_02.gifA scene from Turandot [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of San Diego Opera]

As Calàf, Uruguayan tenor Carlo Ventre was a patient suitor who sang all the notes in the right places with a warm, well-bronzed sound. His interpretation could have been a little bit more energetic and passionate, but his rendition of ‘Nessun Dorma’ brought down the house. Having Reinhold Hagen sing Timur was definitely luxury casting. His smoky-toned mellifluous voice and accomplished interpretation made his character a major player in this drama.

The trio of Ping, Pang and Pong add a bit of comic relief in Act I and a pastoral note to the second act. Baritone Jeff Mattsey as Ping, with tenors Joel Sorensen and Joseph Hu as Pang and Pong, sang with distinctive colors as they combined dramatic coherence with visual piquancy. As the Mandarin, veteran comprimario Scott Sikon commanded the stage with his proclamations. Seated at the top rear of the set, Joseph Frank as Emperor Altoum sang with a quivering reedy tone that denoted his great age.

Acting chorus master Charles Prestinari drew skillfully blended harmonies from San Diego Opera’s excellent group of choristers while they played their parts as the People of Peking. Ebullient and energetic Italian conductor Edoardo Müller led the excellent orchestra in Puccini’s somewhat impressionistic and thoroughly complex score. When the performance ended the applause was thunderous as once again the San Diego audience welcomed the opening of its opera season.

Maria Nockin
(This review also appears at Music & Vision)

* Puccini based his libretto upon Turandot, Prinzessin von China, an adaptation of Gozzi by Schiller.

** Julian Budden wrote:

Despite its unfinished state Turandot is rightly regarded as the summit of Puccini’s achievement, bearing witness to a capacity for self-renewal unsurpassed by that of still greater composers. The style remains true to the composer’s 19th-century roots, but it is toughened and amplified by the assimilation of uncompromisingly modern elements, including bitonality and an adventurous use of whole-tone, pentatonic and modal harmony. The resulting synthesis commands a new range of expression (the pentatonic scale, no longer a mere orientalism as in Madama Butterfly, conveys the full depth of Liù’s pathos in ‘Signore, ascolta’). The music is organized in massive blocks, each motivically based – a system which shows to particular advantage in Act 1, arguably the most perfectly constructed act in Puccini’s output; while the scoring shows a rare imagination in the handling of large forces (the writing for xylophone alone immediately attracts the attention). These attributes, combined with Puccini’s unfailing ability to communicate directly with an audience, have established Turandot as a classic of 20th-century opera.
Julian Budden. “Turandot (ii).” In The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, edited by Stanley Sadie. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/O905166 (accessed February 7, 2011).

*** Yet, as late as 1959, one critic observed that Turandot was rarely performed because of “a certain harshness that sets it apart from the big Puccini favorites (Tosca, Bohème, Butterfly), some devilishly difficult vocal parts, and a need for sumptuous staging.”