Turandot, San Diego

In 1710, French
author FranÁois PÈtis de la Croix made her into Turandot, the so-called ice
princess, who ordered the beheading of prospective consorts who could not solve
riddles she posed. Half a century later, Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi
transformed the PÈtis story into a work for the theater.*

Turandot was Giacomo Puccini’s last opera. He first looked at
it in March 1920 when he met with librettists Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni
to choose a subject for his next work. Having selected Turandot, he
composed most of it between 1921 and 1924, a time when impressionism
along with the sounds of Claude Debussy and Richard Strauss were most
influential.** When he had completed
all but the last few minutes of the score, he went abroad for cancer treatment
and, unfortunately, died of a heart attack there. The finale was completed by
Franco Alfano and the new opera was premiered at La Scala in Milan on Sunday 25
April 1926, seventeen months after Puccini’s death. It was very quickly
accepted by European and American theaters and was performed in New York,
Vienna, Dresden and Buenos Aires during the same year as its world premiere.*** It was seen in London the following year.
China, however, has taken many decades to accept this work because it once
thought the libretto painted its people in a poor light. Performances there did
not take place until the 1990s.

On 29 January, San Diego Opera opened its 2011 season with a gala
performance of Turandot featuring brightly colored sets by the
well-known artist David Hockney. Similarly colored costumes were designed by
Ian Falconer. Although the scenery is stylized in a simplified Chinesemanner,
for the San Diego Opera performances, inventive, Iranian-born stage director
Lotfi Mansouri had his principals move with realistic reactions to the
story’s situations.

For Lise Lindstrom, Turandot has become a signature role ever since her Met
debut last season. After San Diego, she will sing it at La Scala and the
Deutsche Oper in Berlin before returning to the United States and yet another
rendition of the role at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. She sings it with a
smooth delivery that belies the difficulty of the part. Her radiant technique
is reminiscent of Birgit Nilsson, but although her voice had a great deal of
gleaming steel that could cut through the orchestral tapestry like a laser,
this ice princess melted into a passionate lover in Act III. She was not the
only soprano star on that stage, however.

Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho, who has been heard in San Diego as Maria
Stuarda, was a magnificently poignant Li˘. She really brought tears to
everyone’s eyes when she sang her aria, ‘Tu che di gel sei
cinta’. She is a lyric soprano with a rainbow of warm, glowing colors in
her voice and the ability to involve the emotions of the audience with her

Turandot_SD_2011_02.gifA scene from Turandot [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of San Diego Opera]

As Cal‡f, Uruguayan tenor Carlo Ventre was a patient suitor who sang all the
notes in the right places with a warm, well-bronzed sound. His interpretation
could have been a little bit more energetic and passionate, but his rendition
of ‘Nessun Dorma’ brought down the house. Having Reinhold Hagen
sing Timur was definitely luxury casting. His smoky-toned mellifluous voice and
accomplished interpretation made his character a major player in this drama.

The trio of Ping, Pang and Pong add a bit of comic relief in Act I and a
pastoral note to the second act. Baritone Jeff Mattsey as Ping, with tenors
Joel Sorensen and Joseph Hu as Pang and Pong, sang with distinctive colors as
they combined dramatic coherence with visual piquancy. As the Mandarin, veteran
comprimario Scott Sikon commanded the stage with his proclamations.
Seated at the top rear of the set, Joseph Frank as Emperor Altoum sang with a
quivering reedy tone that denoted his great age.

Acting chorus master Charles Prestinari drew skillfully blended harmonies
from San Diego Opera’s excellent group of choristers while they played
their parts as the People of Peking. Ebullient and energetic Italian conductor
Edoardo M¸ller led the excellent orchestra in Puccini’s somewhat
impressionistic and thoroughly complex score. When the performance ended the
applause was thunderous as once again the San Diego audience welcomed the
opening of its opera season.

Maria Nockin
(This review also appears at Music & Vision)

* Puccini based his libretto upon Turandot, Prinzessin von China, an adaptation of Gozzi by

** Julian Budden wrote:

Despite its unfinished state Turandot is rightly regarded as the
summit of Puccini’s achievement, bearing witness to a capacity for
self-renewal unsurpassed by that of still greater composers. The style
remains true to the composer’s 19th-century roots, but it is toughened
and amplified by the assimilation of uncompromisingly modern elements,
including bitonality and an adventurous use of whole-tone, pentatonic and
modal harmony. The resulting synthesis commands a new range of expression
(the pentatonic scale, no longer a mere orientalism as in Madama Butterfly,
conveys the full depth of Li˘’s pathos in ‘Signore,
ascolta’). The music is organized in massive blocks, each motivically
based – a system which shows to particular advantage in Act 1, arguably
the most perfectly constructed act in Puccini’s output; while the
scoring shows a rare imagination in the handling of large forces (the writing
for xylophone alone immediately attracts the attention). These attributes,
combined with Puccini’s unfailing ability to communicate directly with
an audience, have established Turandot as a classic of 20th-century

Julian Budden. “Turandot (ii).” In The New Grove Dictionary of
, edited by Stanley Sadie. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music
, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/O905166
(accessed February 7, 2011).

*** Yet, as late as 1959, one
critic observed
that Turandot was rarely performed because of “a certain harshness that sets it apart from the big Puccini favorites
(Tosca, BohËme, Butterfly), some devilishly difficult vocal parts, and
a need for sumptuous staging.”

image_description=Turandot [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of San Diego Opera]
product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Turandot
product_by=Turandot: Lise Lindstrom; Calaf: Carlo Ventre; Liu: Ermonela Jaho; Timur: Reinhard Hagen; Ping: Jeff Matsey; Pang: Joel Sorensen; Pong: Joseph Hu; Mandarin: Scott Sikon. Conductor: Edoardo M¸ller. Director: Lotfi Mansouri. Scenery: David Hockney. Costumes: Ian Falconer.
product_id=Above: Turandot [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of San Diego Opera]