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Musically speaking, Puccini's Turandot is a beautiful, exotic adventure; dramatically it's a mess. A Persian fairy tale, an eighteenth-century commedia dell'arte piece by Gozzi, a Romantic verse-play by Schiller — all of these provided Puccini's librettists (Adami and Simoni) with the materials for his last opera. Fatally, Puccini added Liù — the only "real" character in the drama — to the mix, giving us the one character we genuinely care about. Liù's presence confuses the issues and robs the ostensible principal characters of sympathy. Calàf's treatment of her is crueler than Pinkerton's of Butterfly; Turandot's more ruthless than that of the Principessa toward Suor Angelica.
A miracle occurred in Seattle Opera's summer 2012 Turandot (seen Aug. 4). The team of André Barbe and Renaud Doucet — plus their fellow Montrealer, lighting designer Guy Simard –maanaged to combine the worlds of verismo Liù, fairy tale Prince and mythic Ice Princess into an exciting and moving whole. The miraculous Seattle production is shared with Minnesota Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Utah Opera and Cincinnati Opera. Barbe's set worked wonderfully on all levels: beyond the arc of an elaborately decorated moon gate hung a huge moon-like globe, which changed color and became as ominous as the gong Calàf strikes at the end of Act I. Doucet's brilliant choreography kept the large cast of characters — the Opera Chorus, in outstanding form, as well as dancers and supernumeraries — moving in gorgeous figures appropriate to both music and drama. Simard's lighting was equally arresting, and Barbe's flamboyantly colorful costumes repeatedly fell into their patterned places like a king-size kaleidoscope.
Ping, Pang and Pong (Patrick Carfizzi, Julius Ahn and Joseph Hu), who come closest to commedia dell'arte characters, were strongly anchored by the baritone, Ping. Carfizzi's nostalgic moment in Act II — "Ho una casa nell'Honan" — was sung with nicely restrained power. Veteran English bass Peter Rose gave Timur great vocal stature; in the moments after Liù's death, his performance was touching beyond words. As Liù, Lina Tetriani, from Tbilisi, Georgia, made an impressive debut with the company. She rose with ease to the high pianissimos at the end of "Signore ascolta" ("Liù non regge più! Ah, pietà") while her middle register, rich in darker hues, deepened the tragedy of her death scene in "Tu, che di gel sei cinta."
Antonello Palombi, not always a subtle singer, was in great form as Calàf on the first night. Not stinting on emotion, he sang his two big arias at full throttle, which put some strain on the high notes in these pieces, as well as in his brief duet with Turandot. But in the riddle scene and "Nessun dorma," Palombi sang up such a storm that he brought the house down.
Lori Phillips was the dazzlingly dressed Turandot. She sang the difficult role with great composure and confidence, maintaining her sangfroid until the moment when Turandot pleads with the Emperor not to cast her into a stranger's arms. Turandot herself is a riddle, revealing right at the start of "In questa reggia" true tenderness toward the memory of her ancestor Lo-u-Ling — a fine and poignant moment as sung by Phillips.
Conducting an orchestra much augmented by Puccini to meet his needs in creating all the exotic Sino-sounds, Asher Fisch emphasized contrasts in mood between, for example, the savagery of the crowds howling "Muoia! Si muoia!" (Death! Yes, death!) and the magical moments when the same crowd waits for the rising moon. Turandot is a very violent opera, and Fisch did not hold back, letting loudness express that fact; but he also made sure that we heard how Liù's love triumphs over tragedy.
JOHN F. HULCOOP