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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

Turandot , Opera Festival of New Jersey, McCarter

Theater, University Place, 609-258-2787. $22 to $82. Performances

continue: Friday, July 13, 8 p.m., Saturday, July 21, 8 p.m., and

Thursday, July 26, 7:30 p.m.

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