Washington’s opera lovers got the kind of traditional spectacle they crave Sunday afternoon as the Kirov Opera commenced its 2006 Kennedy Center residency with a lavish production of Puccini’s “Turandot” in the Opera House under the baton of the company’s general director and conductor Valery Gergiev. Rich in pageantry, and blessed with powerful voices, this is a production that has it all.
The final opera of composer Giacomo Puccini, who died just prior to completing the work, “Turandot,” which premiered in 1926, is at once the showiest of the composer’s operas and the most difficult to pull off.
The music is exotic and a little edgy. It is perhaps Puccini’s most symphonic score, and great skill is required to maintain balance between orchestra and singers.
But the opera’s bloody-minded plot is more than a bit off-putting, particularly in our own jihadi-driven era. Chinese princess Turandot, on a lifelong vendetta to avenge the abuse and slaughter of one of her revered female ancestors, challenges a succession of hapless suitors to answer three complex riddles to win her hand. But the game is rigged against them, and losing contestants are forced to leave their heads behind.
Making matters worse, when the opera’s hero, Calaf, successfully survives the test, he offers his own life in a fit of bravado if the princess can discover his own name by daybreak. The princess promptly sets to torturing and murdering her subjects as well as the hapless servant Liu to unlock Calaf’s secret. Liu, custodian of Calaf’s ailing father, loves Calaf herself but is willing to sacrifice her life to save his.
With a haughty, unappealing heroine and a hero who callously endangers his father and his servant to uphold his pride of place, this is not the kind of drama that endears itself to modern audiences. Many productions try to answer this by adding extraneous personality to the characters. But such attempts generally fail.
The Kirov, under stage director Charles Roubaud, wisely presents “Turandot” as a morality tale, where only love has the power to break the cycle of violence.
Mr. Roubaud abandons realism, transforming the characters into two-dimensional archetypes in a philosophical pantomime. This makes the nastiness seem less personal and more aesthetic, moving the focus to the layered dissonances of Puccini’s ravishingly beautiful score.
“Turandot” is well-suited to this legendary company’s strengths. Like so many Russian operas, it’s loaded with great choral passages, giving the Kirov’s excellent choristers a chance to shine. Yet, it also provides a star vehicle for the hero and heroine.
Tenor Vladimir Galuzin’s big, bold voice gives Calaf the heroic stature he needs, not only to provide a dominating stage presence, but also to cut through the considerable choral and orchestra fabric during climactic scenes — although he occasionally exhibited signs of strain.
His triumphal rendition of the opera’s famous aria “Nessum dorma” (“No one sleeps”) was a powerful essay of hope in the darkness of the final act.
As Turandot, the icy vocal regality of soprano Irina Gordei provided needed balance for this, the most unappealing of Puccini’s heroines. Soprano Irma Gigolashvili was a warm and sympathetic Liu. And Andrei Spekhov, Alexander Timchenko, and Andrei Ilyushnikov made the production sparkle — and provided welcome comic relief — as the trio of bumbling ministers Ping, Pang and Pong.
The Kirov Orchestra, under maestro Gergiev’s baton provided a big, rich sound that frequently permitted the music to soar like a multifaceted, emotional tone poem.
This ensured a thrilling operatic night that will long be remembered in Washington.
WHO: The Kirov Opera and Orchestra
WHAT: Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot”
WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House
WHEN: Thursday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
TICKETS: $40 to $200
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS