A China-that-never-was opened on the stage of Lyric Opera of Chicago the evening of Dec. 5, complete with a giant eye-popping dragon, which hovered with considerable menace above the entire three-act production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot.”
Suspending disbelief is no problem in this over-the-top production, as it brims with fanciful costumes, swords, milling crowds, and a crush of supernumeraries. The title role is that of a cruel and willful princess, miles from the composer’s faithful Butterfly or his dear, doomed Mimi. This royal lady keeps prospective suitors at bay with a series of three questions. If they cannot answer correctly, they are beheaded!
Strangely, she doesn’t even appear until the second act. But when she does, what a dynamo! American soprano Amber Wagner, which Lyric proudly claims as a Ryan Opera Center alum, has a resounding voice, strong and commanding. Initially, the role does not seem to require much acting, though perhaps that is the way British director Rob Kearley, in his Lyric directorial debut, decided the icy princess should be portrayed.
Italian tenor Stefano La Colla, who has performed the role of Calaf all over Europe, makes his Lyric debut with the unenviable assignment of competing with the late Luciano Pavarotti’s renderings of the sumptuous aria “Nessun dorma.” Fortunately on opening night, he enchanted the audience with his beautiful tone and masterful delivery and was rewarded with prolonged applause.
A prince from the West named Calaf, spoiler alert, answers all three questions and eventually melts Turandot’s frozen heart. When the iceberg calves, she confesses that she is deeply repressed and actually hungry for love. Only then does the princess begin to express some emotions.
This opera does have one faithful but fated heroine, the exquisite Liù as the slave of Calaf’s father, the exiled King Timur. Liù, a model of compassion and kindness. has long been in love with Calaf, and – no surprise – like Butterfly and Mimi dies toward the end. Italian soprano, Maria Agresta makes her Lyric debut in the role and she is a splendid actress. Her voice initially sounds light, but it can rise to sensational power. She will sing the role during all December performances. In January Liù will be sung by soprano Janai Brugger, a native of Chicago, also in her Lyric debut.
Calaf’s father Timur is sung by the Italian bass, Andrea Silvestrelli, a welcome regular at Lyric, who is also singing in “The Pearl Fishers” this season.
Puccini has peppered his Chinese palace with courtiers Ping, Pang and Pong, sung respectively by American baritone Zachary Nelson; Filipino-American tenor, Rodell Rosel, a Ryan Center alum, and American tenor Keith Jameson. They are turned out in hilarious attire and provide comic relief in this sometimes sluggish tale.
Music director Sir Andrew Davis led his superb orchestra through the Puccini’s elegant, intricate score. The composer died before the opera was finished, but it was completed by Franco Alfano and debuted at Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1926. The score flirts with pentatonic themes, but remains faithful to the composer’s own rich and much-beloved harmonies. Davis conducts all performances save Jan. 27, when Robert Tweten will lead the orchestra. The young voices in Josephine Lee’s Chicago Children’s Choir lend their sweet sound to the performance and the Lyric Chorus, under Michael Black, adds its robust voice to the drama.
Performance dates for “Turandot” are 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8 and 11, and 2 p.m. Dec. 14 and 17, as well at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 10 and 13, 2 p.m. Jan. 21 and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 27.