- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2001

Nearly all of Giacomo Puccini's heroines die a miserable death. But not Turandot.

Puccini's Chinese princess — the driving force behind the opera that bears her name — is a fiery, man-hating feminist who could put the likes of Andrea Dworkin to shame. In order to win Turandot's hand in marriage, a prospective suitor must answer three impossible riddles or lose his head.

Throughout all the mayhem, Puccini's glorious music soars, making "Turandot" one of the most enduringly popular operas. The Washington Opera's revival of its spectacular — if slightly cramped — 1993 Zack Brown production of "Turandot" is the hottest ticket in Washington this month. (It's sold out.)

"Turandot" was Puccini's final opera. Suffering from cancer and a heart condition, the Italian composer attempted to complete his nearly finished opera in a desperate race against the inevitable. But, like Mozart's "Requiem," "Turandot" remained incomplete when Puccini died Nov. 29, 1924. The final portion of the opera's third act, as it is usually heard today, was finished by Puccini's friend, the composer Franco Alfano, who worked from sketches left by the composer.

"Turandot" has remained a staple of the operatic repertoire since its premiere in La Scala on April 25, 1926, because of its dramatic tension, spectacle, strength of creative orchestration and brilliant third-act tenor aria, "Nessun dorma" (No One May Sleep").

Puccini was a composer of many moods whose music evolved to suit the times. His early works were unabashedly late-Romantic, at times infused with a dreamy, impressionistic touch. But in his last work, his music, while still in the Romantic vein, verges on modernism. Its harsh dissonances and low brass tone clusters interweave with an armada of exotic percussion at one moment, and passionate, soaring melodies erupt at the next.

"Turandot" is a brilliant score, challenging yet listenable. It offers Oriental flavor, but never the hokey pastiche of phony Chinese cadences one might find today on Broadway, in adventure films or on television. Puccini gives us just enough exoticism to suggest a land that is not European, but his music does not lapse into caricature.

The quality of orchestral playing is critical to a successful production of "Turandot." Fortunately, the quality here is "big time," as President Bush might say. Under the steady baton of conductor Heinz Fricke, the Washington Opera Orchestra gives a truly symphonic performance, but never overshadows the singers. The shimmering battery of percussion and Chinese gongs was particularly effective in setting the mood of majesty, fear and awe that is critical in the second act's "riddle scene."

Before we get to the soloists, let's give a round of applause to the Washington Opera Chorus, which just seems to get better and better. This production of "Turandot" forces the huge, varied chorus of mandarins, peasants, bureaucrats and royalty to crowd the stage almost unbearably, making blocking and timing a real concern. But even while negotiating this cramped obstacle course, the chorus stays in character, in tempo and in tune, creating a glorious, uplifting sound, particularly in the triumphal finale.

Although she doesn't begin singing until the second act, the character Turandot is obviously the star of this show. Internationally acclaimed soprano Alessandra Marc — a hometown girl who attended the University of Maryland and lives in Chantilly — is well-armed for this daunting task with a formidable yet flexible vocal instrument. (Sun Xiu Wei will sing this role at some of the performances. A third soprano, Sharon Sweet, canceled because of illness.) Turandot frequently has to sing against a nearly Wagnerian orchestra, and to do this well is difficult. But Miss Marc has few problems engaging in this battle, with her burnished, powerful voice simultaneously expressing majesty and mortal fear.

Tenor Ian DeNolfo — Turandot's mysterious suitor, Prince Calaf — is impetuous, youthful and dashing in a fine portrayal of a young man so overcome by love that he overlooks the tragic pitfalls that await him in his headlong pursuit of the icy princess. Mr. DeNolfo's instrument has the heft to bring needed authority to this role, which spends more than its fair share of time in the tenor's lower register. His voice frequently shines forth in splendor, most notably in the second act as he engineers his initial triumph over the fatal riddles. But at times during the opera's Wednesday night performance, particularly in Acts 1 and 3, he seemed inexplicably sharp rather than on key, as if he had to drop his voice down to the notes rather than nailing them dead on.

Singers in "Turandot's" secondary roles are first-rate. Lyric soprano Ana Maria Martinez is brave and touching as the noble servant Liu. Her smaller voice serves as an interesting dramatic counterpoint to Miss Marc's larger instrument. Although the character Liu may be timid, she is actually more courageous than the imperious princess, and this is the kind of dramatic tension that makes Puccini's operas so effective as theater.

As the three occasionally comic ministers Ping, Pang and Pong, baritone Daniel Mobbs and tenors Matthew Lord and Corey Evan Rotz are delightful, particularly in their second-act curtain raiser — except for the vaudevillian shtick imposed on them by otherwise sure-handed director Lotfi Mansouri and choreographer Kimberly Mackin. Rounding out the cast, bass Rosendo Flores as the dethroned King Timur and tenor Robert Baker as the aging Emperor Altoum performed with distinction in their smaller roles.

{*}{*}{*}{*}WHAT: Washington Opera production of "Turandot"WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera HouseWHEN: Through March 24TICKETS: Sold out


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