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This review by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the July 11, 2001
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Opera Review: `Turandot’
In its second offering of the season, Opera Festival
of New Jersey has matched the magnitude of Puccini’s
by mounting a compelling production in which strong voices stand out
in high relief amidst a teeming, fairytale Chinese setting.
Puccini’s powerful vehicle, the largest ever tackled by OFNJ, with
more than 70 characters appearing on stage, introduces audiences to
director John Hoomes of the Nashville Opera Association. In his OFNJ
opening-night debut, Hoomes paid scrupulous attention both to the
broad strokes of Puccini’s version of the ancient Chinese tale and
to developing details of his own devising which gave the work a
three-dimensional quality. With conductor Michael Ching providing
the necessary musical tautness and momentum, the result is a coherent
production that unites outstanding contributions by both musicians
and designers. The production, which opened at McCarter Theater on
Saturday, June 30, continues with performances Friday, July 13,
July 21, and Thursday, July 26.
Premiered in 1926, "Turandot" was very much a product of its
time, offering us a stereotypical Western image of China. Further,
the character Turandot verges on a caricature of a feminist woman.
But because Puccini represents this work to us as a fairytale, I was
willing to meet it on its on terms.
The story of "Turandot" concerns the quest of various princes
for the hand of Princess Turandot for whom the opera is named. To
win her, they must answer three riddles; if they fail, they are put
to death. Prince Calaf, in the churning crowd about to witness an
execution, comes upon his blind father, King Timur, who believed that
his son was dead. The old Timur is accompanied by a devoted slave
girl, Liu, a character not part of the original folktale, who plays
a pivotal role in the opera. King Timur and Liu try to dissuade Calaf
from vying for Turandot. But despite their efforts and the arguments
of others, Calaf presents himself to answer the riddles. He responds
Turandot now attempts to renege on her agreement to marry the man
who solves her riddles, and Calaf responds by offering to renounce
his right to marry her if she can guess his name by the next morning.
Despite a kingdom-wide search, Calaf’s name is not discovered. The
following morning, a defiant Liu announces that she knows the name
of the successful riddle solver, but refuses to reveal it. She praises
the power of love, making it clear that she loves Calaf. Threatened
with force if she refuses to give his name, Liu kills herself. Calaf
marries Turandot, who now understands the importance of love.
Puccini died before completing the three-act opera. The portion of
Act III following Liu’s death was written by his friend Franco Alfano,
and follows Puccini’s work seamlessly. Giuseppe Adami and Renato
wrote the libretto.
Soprano Anna Shafajinskaia, making her U.S. debut as the icy, but
seductive, Princess Turandot, has a commanding, versatile,
voice. A native of Ukraine, she is scheduled to sing the role at
Covent Garden and at the New York City Opera.
As Turandot, Shafajinskaia does not appear on stage until Act II.
With her first notes, the exceptional warmth and seductiveness of
her voice in its middle range seemed to make Turandot’s reputation
for coldness and harshness unbelievable. Yet in the following aria
of vengeance, she went on to display to us Turandot’s steely
Upon hearing the initial appeal of Shafajinskaia’s
one could understand why Prince Calaf succumbs to the attraction of
Turandot and decides to vie for her hand. Tenor Allan Glassman, as
Calaf, who has appeared at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, like
performed at OFNJ for the first time. His strong singing enabled him
to hold his own in her company. Their Act II duet was intense. In
Act III, Glassman’s lean and forceful rendition of the aria
dorma" or "None shall sleep," came close to perfection
and evoked show-stopping applause.
Soprano Theresa Cincione, as the warm-hearted slave Liu, was an
foil to Shafajinskaia’s Turandot. Liu’s humanity, loyalty, and
are the catalyst for Turandot’s eventual submission to Calaf, freeing
her to love and to weep. The intimate Act III duet between the two
women is a study in contrasts, vocally and psychologically. Its
contrast also with the public ceremonies in which Turandot
earlier in the opera.
The dramatic Act III exchange between slave Liu and princess Turandot
is the turning point of the opera. Although Liu lacks social status,
her moral values prevail over those originally espoused by the
Still, Calaf, a prince, settles down with Turandot, a princess,
so much as a kind word for the slave Liu. Social justice lies outside
the scope of this opera, although we see how the blind King Timur,
to whom Liu was steadfastly loyal, forlornly exits the stage as the
dead Liu is carried off.
The strong bass voice of Scott Altman, who plays King Timur, is a
substantial asset. Indeed, at the outset of the evening I feared,
incorrectly, that Timur’s vocal power would eclipse that of Calaf
and Liu, but all three proved impressive.
Hoomes’ "Turandot" presents a traditional —
albeit stereotypical — Western view of China which meshes well
with Puccini’s use of the pentatonic scales traditional in Chinese
music. We see peasants in conical straw hats and aristocrats in
jackets. There are pigtails and fans. Scurrying is the most common
mode of locomotion.
Yet Hoomes is not constrained by opera’s need to be aural. The peak
dramatic moment in the production comes when Calaf holds Turandot
in a long, torrid kiss just before the final curtain. Silence
this embrace. There is no singing and no instrumental sound as the
two remain frozen for an extended, visually thought-provoking moment.
A selection of other attention-catching moments shows Hoomes’
in making the most of what Puccini provides. His initial coolie crowd
scene gives us a mass of humanity, identically-dressed in black
and pale straw hats, with each individual moving in their own pattern.
The two men carrying a chest of jewels to Calaf in the hope of
him from claiming Turandot strain under its weight. During the
search for Calaf’s name, the sky is starry and multitudes of lanterns
light the way for searchers. After Liu kills herself, Timur urges
her to get up; dead, she remained motionless, but the surrounding
crowd rises, creating the illusion that Liu is sinking.
Puccini’s choice to keep Turandot from joining the events until
builds the dramatic suspense. Hoomes confines her Act I activity to
a few large arm gestures. Her Act II entrance is preceded by the
of government officials Ping, Pang, and Pong, reminiscent of a Gilbert
and Sullivan trio. Their slow antics provide a lull before the arrival
of the stormy Turandot.
Scenic designer Ron Kadri leads the design team, with costumes by
Helen E. Rodgers, and lighting by F. Mitchell Dana. Successful on
the whole, some minor distracting elements included a large central
gate that rose and descended, as well as walls that slid laterally.
The performance is sung in Italian, with English titles. There were
a few lyrical moments unaccompanied by text where I would have
The contrast between Mozart’s "Magic Flute" and Puccini’s
"Turandot" underlines the variety that OFNJ is bringing to
its McCarter series. These fairytales of differing proportions and
differing centuries, are to be followed by Gluck’s "Orfeo ed
a chamber opera, and a double bill of two 20th-century operas,
"Il Prigioniero" and Bartok’s "Bluebeard’s Castle."
The season continues to realize its promise.
— Elaine Strauss
Theater, University Place, 609-258-2787. $22 to $82. Performances
Thursday, July 26, 7:30 p.m.
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