Chicago Opera Review: TURANDOT (Lyric Opera)

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by Barnaby Hughes on December 10, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


It’s difficult to know what to make of Puccini’s Turandot, much less to pronounce the title properly. (Is the final ‘t’ silent? Who knows?) The composer’s last, unfinished opera is so unlike anything he had done previously. Turandot seems to have the epic historical sweep and musical grandeur of Tosca, yet also the satirical sardonicism and bold harmonic coloring of Gianni Schicchi. This reviewer is not convinced that these jarring juxtapositions work. Is Turandot a comedy? Maybe it’s a romance? Perhaps it’s a tragedy? Or is it some strange combination of all three? Lyric’s new-to-Chicago production makes no attempt to clear things up.

Turandot’s fabled plot set in ancient/medieval China centers on an icy princess who would rather kill her suitors for failing to answer her riddles than to marry any of them. As the Prince of Persia is carried off to his death, another prince, Calaf, arrives on the scene. He is instantly captivated by Turandot’s beauty and takes up her challenge; at the same time, Calaf is reunited with his long-lost father Timur, toppled king of Tartary. Timur is accompanied only by his faithful slave Liù. When Calaf answers the riddles correctly, Turandot still refuses to marry him, so he allows her a way out. If Turandot discovers his name, he’ll kill himself. She soon brings in Liù, who refuses to give up Calaf’s name even in the face of death. Finally, Turandot and Calaf are left alone and love unbelievably blossoms.

First, the comedy. Puccini obviously seems to have conceived of Ping, Pang, and Pong as comic characters, revealed by the words they sing and their musical setting. Production designer Allen Charles Klein and makeup designer Sarah Hatten heightens these effects with clown-like costumes and face paint. Zachary Nelson, Keith Jameson, and the always unforgettable Rodell Rosel play the entertaining trio with droll delight. Another amusing touch by the production is the emperor’s incredibly long beard, which he unfurls like a banner from his lofty perch. If the comedy had been sustained throughout this production, it might have been really enjoyable.

Second, the romance at the heart of Turandot is stunningly awful. How are we to believe that Calaf has fallen in love with Turandot in Act I when she doesn’t even make an appearance until Act II? If the eye projection is supposed to stand in for her physical presence, then it utterly fails. When Amber Wagner’s Turandot does appear, she is more ferocious feminist than ice queen. Instead of being indifferent to Calaf, she actively despises him and her manner is full of fire and fury. Wagner’s singing, no less than her acting, is totally overwrought, belting out every word without the least bit of finesse. And to round out such a disappointing performance, Wagner’s voice broke more than once.

Finally, the tragedy. Maria Agresta’s Liù not only commits suicide rather than give up the name of her beloved Calaf, but Stefano La Colla’s Calaf is indifferent to her. Agresta is one of the brightest stars in this production and her Lyric debut ought not to be her last performance here. She sings sweetly and delicately, with the only tenderness Turandot displays. La Colla’s debut is similarly strong. He seems unusually at ease in his role, even to the point of cockiness, rendering the famous aria “Nessun dorma” as if it were nothing special. While his voice is beautifully clear in tone and enunciation, his technique needs more precision, hitting notes directly and individually rather than scooping and sliding so often.

At a time when Asian actors in Hollywood rightly complain about the whitewashing of roles, I wonder how much longer opera companies can continue to put on productions of Turandot with heavily made-up, mostly white casts. In one sense, I appreciate that casting is typically colorblind, for otherwise there would be few if any roles for non-whites. I guess it’s more a question of whether or not we retain in the repertoire these kinds of fantastic “orientalist” operas at all (and here I include Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers). At the very least, we need to think carefully about how such operas are presented and performed.

Puccini’s Turandot might be a compelling drama, but this production of it is not. There’s much to recommend in the exotic costumes, sets and music, as well as the mostly excellent performances of the soloists, Lyric Opera Chorus and Chicago Children’s Choir, but the overall effect is dissatisfying.

photos by Todd Rosenberg and Andrew Cioffi

Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
ends on January 27, 2018
for tickets, call 312.827.5600 or visit Lyric Opera

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Tom Terry January 9, 2018 at 8:27 pm

The name is not even originally Italian, but Persian, and in the Italian pronunciation the final “t” in Turandot is pronounced. Also, the opera is not a comedy, nor a satire. It is a melodrama, in the best Italian operatic tradition.


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