At the very moment a powerful “new” Chinese empire is suggesting what our future might look like, Puccini’s grand opera, “Turandot,” which debuted at La Scala in 1926, and is now receiving a lushly beautiful, “new-to-Chicago” production at Lyric Opera, serves as a vivid reminder of the sort of fabulously exotic fantasy of the Far East that captured the imagination of Western audiences well into the 20th century.
When: Through Jan. 27
Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
Tickets: $69 – $369
Run time: 3 hours, with two intermissions
But here is the intriguing thing about it: While on the one hand the work possesses a dark fairy tale quality that requires a considerable suspension of disbelief (its libretto, by G. Adami and R. Simoni, is, in fact based on such a story by Carlo Gozzi), much about the story rings true at this very moment. Just consider its central male-female power play (which resolves itself in full, feverishly romantic fashion, but not before much cruelty and violence), as well as its evocation of the fervor of the mob, the pain of exile and the ache of a society in flux that yearns for a more orderly past. Add complex father-son and master-slave relationships to the mix, stir with a rich infusion of unrequited love, and be assured there is much to sing about.
There is this above all: Puccini’s melodies are beyond rapturous, with several haunting themes and variations exquisitely laced throughout the opera’s three acts and infused with the sound of Chinese gongs and other Eastern percussion. The opera is given full voice here by a gathering of superb soloists, an adult and children’s chorus, and the impeccable Lyric orchestra led by the seemingly tireless conductor, Sir Andrew Davis.
The story, set in a mythical Beijing of times past — with a giant dragon and enigmatic moon hovering over the action — is Shakespearean in an imperial Chinese sort of way as suitors for the hand of Princess Turandot (Amber Wagner) come from far and wide to meet her terrifying challenge. To win her hand in marriage, the men must correctly answer three riddles. If they fail the test they are beheaded, and the executioners have been exceedingly busy, with much blood spilled (a head even appears on a pole). Yet behind all this lies a tragic story, for Turandot has walled herself in from any union because she is haunted by the torture and death of a princess who long ago became the victim of an invading foreign prince, and she is determined to avoid a similar fate.
Enter Calaf (Stefano La Colla), the wildly confident son of Timur (Andrea Silvestrelli), the aging, exiled King of Tartary whose fiercely devoted caretaker, Liu (Maria Agresta), a beautiful slave girl, pines for Calaf. Instantly obsessed with Turandot, Calaf recklessly commits himself to risking his life to win her, despite the advice of a trio of imperial ministers — Ping (Zachary Nelson), Pang (Rodell Rosel) and Pong (Keith Jameson).
There is far more to the story, but be advised that love, death and no end of sacrifice will ultimately bring down the protective wall Turandot has built around herself.
Staged by the British director Rob Kearley, “Turandot” is high on grandeur and full of sublime voices. Wagner’s Turandot is perhaps more Wagnerian than Puccini-esque, but she uses her formidable soprano to suggest power as well as personal terror, with an especially fine rendering of the aria “In questa reggia” (“In this palace”). Emblematic of La Colla’s full, velvety tenor is his beautiful rendering of “Nessun dorma” (“None shall sleep”). That said, the chemistry between the two leaves something to be desired.
Agresta, who blends her emotionally rich soprano with first-rate naturalistic acting, triumphs by making Liu a woman of substance and pity. And in one of the opera’s loveliest scenes, Nelson brings a sublime wistfulness to Ping’s memories of his idyllic home town as he rues the brutal demands of palace life. The chorus (under Michael Black) sings brilliantly, with Josephine Lee’s Chicago Children’s Choir adding a breath of innocence via its heavenly voices. Silvestrelli’s Lear-like Timur and Josh Lovell’s withered Emperor also thrive on convincing characterizations.
The magical production design is the work of Allen Charles Klein, whose thatched walls, creepy trees and imperial grandeur (all enhanced by Chris Maravich’s densely hued lighting) suggest how a ravaged kingdom can be brought back to life by love.
Love, death, rebirth and Puccini. The ideal formula for opera.