Turandot’s story has appeared in a surprising number of works, including an 18th-century play by Carlo Gozzi, a romantic drama by Friedrich Schiller, and even a modernist offering by Bertolt Brecht. Yet it is Puccini’s lyrical version of the story that is best known, despite the fact that Puccini left it unfinished. It was completed by Franco Alfano. Surprisingly, Puccini not only knew the Italian version, but admired Schiller’s version. It is this highly fictionalized version that clearly influences the melodramatic tone of the screenplay, accentuated by a dazzling orchestral score by Puccini. This orchestral landscape is so visual that one barely noticed that the recent Maryland Lyric Opera production at Strathmore Music Center was a concert version, as it placed even greater emphasis on the expansive orchestra. Opera singers and a large choir were also present, of course. These elements, along with very symbolic lighting changes as well as effective English subtitles, enriched the opera experience for all participants.
…this orchestral landscape is so visual that one barely noticed that the recent Maryland Lyric Opera production at Strathmore Music Center was a concert version, as it placed even greater emphasis on the expansive orchestra.
Perhaps because it was completed by someone else, ‘Turandot’ is not performed as much as Puccini’s other operas. The setting is the China of yesteryear and features the Chinese princess, Turandot, who rejects the idea of marriage to anyone. If a suitor desires her hand in marriage, he must correctly answer three of her riddles. Those who fail meet (borrowing Schiller’s dramatic version here) “a dreadful end”, beheaded at the hands of the executioner for having been “unable to solve the riddles of this Sphinx”. Now comes Prince Calaf, who is more cunning than the others and, we presume, more ardent in his passion. Turandot notices how confident he exudes, which upsets her greatly. Will Calaf answer his questions correctly or will he suffer the fate of others? “Although dead, we still dream of her” – Calaf hears the mournful chorus of the dead in a spooky undercurrent of the orchestra.
Colored lighting was used to create a symbolic effect instead of decorations. The opera begins with red-toned lighting, red being associated with prosperity in Chinese culture. Here he also suggests the pervasive theme of death in the opera. When Turandot appears, which is a bit operatic, icy blues and frozen greens appear from the lighting palette, alluding to Turandot’s cold character, mentioned many times in the libretto (“white as jade , cold as the blade”).
Visual elements have also been added as various characters come into play. Three imperial ministers are always seen together, wearing red waistcoats. Jonathan Burton as Calaf and Alexandra LoBianco as Turandot augment the visual spectacle of the opera with dramatic gestures. Later, when a character dies, they are presented visually in a very stylized way. The deceased came out with four men dressed in black, all of whom suggested pallbearers carrying a coffin.
The singing was spectacular, with tenor Burton delivering a driving ‘Nessun Dorma’, the opera’s standout aria from the third act. He blended well with the beautiful-voiced soprano, Alexandra LoBianco, in the duet involving Turandot asking and Calaf solving puzzles. Special mention should be made of Morris Robinson’s portrayal of Calaf’s father, Timur, done sympathetically and with a powerful bass voice. The tragic figure of Little Liu was moved by Nicole Heaston, who poignantly sings, in soaring phrases, of her unrequited love for Calaf.
The three imperial ministers Ping (Javier Arrey), Pang (Joseph Michael Brent) and Pong (Yi Li) were all excellent, but particular praise is due to Mr. Arrey. He is particularly good at uniting beautiful voice and acting skills, bringing drama to life in this live opera experience. The whole production worked so well thanks to the combined talents of Artistic Director Brad Clark, Lighting Director Stuart Duke, Chorus Director Steven Gathman and Band Leader Louis Salemno, with his superb orchestral direction.
The opera showed that (to quote the libretto) those “girded with ice will be overcome by the fire of love”, especially when this work is performed with the commitment and passion of all the good artists who have participated to the Maryland Lyric Opera production. .
Duration: About 2h30, including an intermission.
“Turandot” took place February 25-27, 2022 at the Strathmore Music Center, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, MD 20852, presented by Maryland Lyric Opera. For more information on upcoming productions, visit the Maryland Lyric Opera website here.