Giacomo Puccini’s final opera, Turandot, was presented for the first time this season Saturday night at the Benedum, and a gratifyingly large crowd packed the auditorium to enjoy a truly resounding rendition of the composer’s swan song. The work is staged on a grand scale, with impressive sets and costumes, careful attention to the massive choral and orchestral effects the score offers, and impressive singers, and that the audience was pleased with the results was expressed with unusual enthusiasm after each of the first two acts, and a deafening ovation at the final curtain. For once, those stampeding the exits were in the minority, while those who lingered as long as possible to express their appreciation were the distinct majority. The warm spring evening brought out a long demonstration of applause and cheers that must have pleased all concerned in the performance.
The opera’s title is frequently pronounced with the final “t” being silent, even by many of its greatest interpreters, but as Puccini’s descendants have pointed out, the correct “Italianization” of the name would be something like “Turandotta,” and the name should be pronounced as written. Unfinished at the time of Puccini’s death in 1924, this musical masterpiece is set to an Italian libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni. Franco Alfano used a sketch of Puccini’s to finish the opera (although a few others have tampered with the ending, with mixed results), and it was first heard at La Scala, Milan, in April 1926, with the mightily gifted Rosa Raisa in the title role (her husband, baritone Giacomo Rimini, taking the role of Ping), the light-weight, lyrical tenor, Miguel Fleta, as “The Unknown Prince,” Calaf, and the famous Arturo Toscanini wielding the baton. Saturday night, Antony Walker was back at the podium for only the second time this season, and in the orchestra pit, in addition to the large group of gifted instrumentalists that are always on hand, were the very gongs Puccini himself had handcrafted in Italy when he was orchestrating the opera. In an amusing and engaging pre-show talk by Christopher Hahn, General Director of the ambitious company, the audience learned that one of the gongs bore the signature of the late Luciano Pavarotti.
The plot is a grim one, set in ancient China, and tells the story of the Princess Turandot, who has been raised to grind an ancient ax to avenge a wronged ancestor, and who is so determined to be claimed by no man that she sets before potential suitors a series of impossible riddles. One wrong answer costs the loser his head, and she has caused the deaths of countless would-be mates. As her latest victim is about to be executed, the bloodthirsty mob in its clamor for a better view knocks an elderly blind man (Timur, the vanquished King of Tartary) to the ground, and a devoted young slave girl (Liù), cries out for help to lift her master back to his feet. In the crowd is a handsome young prince (Calaf), who recognizes the old man as his long-lost father. Timur explains to his son that only Liù has remained devoted to him, and when Calaf asks her why, she explains that he once smiled at her, shyly betraying her unrequited love for the prince. But Calaf is so obsessed with winning Turandot that he resists the discouragement of all and bangs a large gong to summon the cold-hearted princess.
To Turandot’s horror, Calaf answers her riddles correctly. As she begs her father, the Emperor Altoum, to rescue her from the mysterious stranger, Calaf tells her that if she guesses his name by dawn he will forfeit his victory and sacrifice his own life. It is commanded that no one shall dare sleep until Turandot learns his name. Ping, Pang and Pong, Turandot’s ministers, try to coax Calaf to flee while he has the chance, since she is determined that Timur and Liù know his name, and is willing to torture it out of them. Liù tells the mob that she alone knows his true identity, to save Timur, and she breaks away from her tormentors and slides her own neck along a soldier’s sword. As the grief-stricken old man follows the crowd that carries her body away, Calaf and Turandot are left alone for a stand-off. Succumbing to Calaf’s kiss, Turandot’s heart of ice is melted by a new, unknown emotion – love – the populace rejoices, and the story comes as close to a “happy” ending as the plot can possibly get.
It was (to me, at least) a foregone conclusionthat Mark Trawka and his magnificent chorus would make the most of the colossal ensembles the opera calls for, since they have been kept in the dark silence since La Traviata in October. And indeed, they did. With great sonority and precision, this large, talented group poured out a glorious torrent of sound that thrilled time aftertime through the course of the three-act evening. They well deserved the roar of approval they received at the opera’s conclusion. Antony Walker has a sure grasp of the score, and the orchestration flowed for the most part quite smoothly throughout, rising to thrilling massiveness in the crashing ensembles in which the chorus and principal singers were also giving all they had to give.
Thiago Arancam made his Pittsburgh Opera debut in the role of Calaf. He’s a fine looking young tenor who presents an impressive stage appearance, and the audience was clearly smitten with him. He relied on the strength and ringing qualities of his voice, and poured out the famous “Nessun dorma” aria with tremendous vehemence, but little attention to the more delicate shadings and nuances the piece offers. Still, at its conclusion, the crowd erupted in a roar of approval, all but drowning the beautiful orchestration that follows. If his intent was to make a good first impression, he more than succeeded. Alexandra Loutsion, a former Resident Artist with the company, assumed the title role for the first time, and presented an imposing figure and a strong soprano voice quite capable of meetingthe trying demands of the score. She will have the opportunity to add finishing touches to her portrayal in the upcoming repetitions, but for a first performance, she sang and acted the role impressively.
Wei Wu returned as Timur, and gave the finest performance he’s offered with the company to date. The smaller roles were in the hands of competent singing actors who rounded out the ensemble. Andy Berry (the Mandarin), Joseph Frank (Emperor Altoum), Samantha DeStefano and Meghan DeWald (Handmaidens) all added to the general excellence of the production.
Somewhat of an error was made in thrusting Ping (Craig Verm), Pang (Julius Ahn) and Pong (Joseph Hu) into cartoonish costumes and comedic antics that distracted and over-emphasized the prominence of the roles. They sang well individually, but the beautiful blending of the voices in the first scene of the second act was missed entirely. Even had it not been, three men in white union suits emblazoned with the Chinese character for “Love” would have distracted from its effectiveness. Despite the impression that they were members of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta troupe who showed up at the wrong theater, they were audience favorites, and when all is said and done, the pleasure of the paying customers is what matters most.
The most artistically satisfying singing of the evening was done by Maria Luigia Borsi in the comparatively small and somewhat ungrateful role of Liù. Her beautifully pure soprano tones throbbed with emotion in her two arias, and she brought out the devotion and timidity of the character in a manner that was heart-rending. Her most delicate singing carried through the expanses of the Benedum most exquisitely.
As a whole, the opera is being presented with a colorful grandeur and pageantry that shouldn’t be missed. For tickets, a complete synopsis and much more, visit Pittsburgh Opera.
Special thanks to the company for the complimentary press tickets.
“The Artistic Team” for Turandot –
Antony Walker, Conductor; Renaud Doucet, Original Stage Director and Choreographer; Kathleen Stakenas, Stage Director; André Barbe, Set and Costume Designer; Guy Simard, Lighting Designer; James Geier, Wig and Makeup Designer; Roxanne Foster, Assistant Choreographer; Glenn Lewis, Assistant Conductor; Mark Trawka, Chorus Master; James Lesniak, Assistant Coach/Pianist; Frances Rabalais, Assistant Director; Cindy Knight, Stage Manager.
Photography – David Bachman.