San Diego Opera opens its 2011 season with a spectacular production of Giacomo Puccini's final opera, "Turandot." Designs by David Hockney using vivid reds and blues set the stage for a legendary tale of a frigid Chinese princess who delights in beheading her royal suitors who cannot answer her three riddles.
The opera is based on a Chinese fairy-tale play written by Carlo Gozzi, a Venetian playwright of the 18th century, and later adapted for the stage by German poet Schiller. As was his custom, Puccini created a memorable title role (remember Manon Lescaut, Madama Butterfly, Tosca) as the protagonist that you love to hate, quite different from his other sympathetic heroines. Turandot also demands a dramatic soprano voice of heroic size with a stage presence to match.
The first act sets the story in motion before the vocal fireworks begin. A mysterious prince named Calàf appears to witness the execution of the latest victim and for some unknown reason is smitten by the ice-princess only briefly viewed on a balcony to witness the killing. Despite pleadings from the young man's father and his slave girl who worships the prince, Calàf steps up to the giant gong to announce his challenge.
The next scene features three Mandarin officials who are in charge of executions, or the wedding ceremony should a suitor answer the riddles. Here is where the fairy-tale author Gozzi adapted a popular drama technique of his time called [I]commedia dell'arte[/I] by using mask characters for a lighter comic relief to the intense drama.
Puccini focused on these masks in the roles of Ping, Pang and Pong to incorporate an Italianate touch to the fussy Chinese mannerisms. He also borrowed a friend's music box that played Chinese folk songs to adapt as themes for his opera score. Unfortunately Puccini died in 1924 before completion of the final scene left to a colleague to craft the barely legible sketches into the grand finale duet between Turandot and Calàf.
The big scene is in the imperial palace where Turandot challenges the prince with her cryptic riddles. To her shock and dismay, the Calàf answers them correctly and claims his prize. When the haughty Turandot begs release, her suitor offers to forfeit if she can identify him before dawn.
Enter the blind father of Calàf and his slave girl Liù to soften the grisly drama with some melodic touches. Liù's two brief arias are the show stoppers usually cast for a lyric soprano of bel canto vocal quality. The vindictive princess suspects that Liù can identify her mystery suitor and orders her torture. Rather than betray her master, she grabs a dagger from a soldier and stabs herself while pleading with Turandot to discover love.
This was Puccini's final dramatic climax as he died himself at this point in composing the opera leaving the conclusion to another composer. It was also the moment that Arturo Toscanini, who conducted the premiere at La Scala in 1926, put down his baton and told the surprised opening night audience, "Here the opera ends, because at this moment the maestro died" as the curtain slowly lowered. San Diego audiences will hear the passionate duet that seals the match and brings the opera to a happy ending.
The SDO production stars Lise Lindstrom in the title role which was her 2009 Met Opera debut as Turandot. An interviewer in [I]Opera News[/I] quipped that she was the first ice princess he had seen who actually melted as her passion grew.
Carlo Ventre returns to San Diego (last seen here as Lt. Pinkerton) to perform Calàf following appearance in Berlin, La Scala and Frankfurt. Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho, last seen here in "Maria Stuarda," sings the pivotal role of Liù.
Two veterans of past major SDO productions, conductor Edoardo Müller and director Lotfi Mansouri, bring their vast opera talents to the stage of the Civic Theatre to showcase this spectacle of Imperial China. "Turandot" is sung in Italian with English text over the stage.
Performances at the Civic Theatre are: 7 p.m. Jan. 29 and Tuesday Feb. 1; 8 p.m. Feb. 4; 2 p.m. Feb. 6. For ticket information, call 619-533-7000 or visit sdopera.com.
Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University.