Devotees of “Turandot,” Giacomo Puccini’s last and grandest opera (1926), are a melancholy lot. Many have never encountered an aesthetically and emotionally convincing production — one that integrates the work’s fairy-tale, commedia dell’arte, Wagnerian, verismo, exotic and modernist elements. Forlornly, they seek a staging in which the spectacle serves the drama, and in which the central characters don’t seem rice-paper thin.
But now there’s hope. Co-produced with companies in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Utah, Minnesota Opera’s sumptuous new “Turandot,” which opened Saturday at the Ordway Center in St. Paul, is a meticulous and gratifying realization of one of opera’s most problematic scores — and a fitting capstone for an extraordinary 50th season.
For this, credit goes mainly to the Montréal-based partnership of André Barbe (set and costume designer) and Renaud Doucet (stage director and choreographer), who, in their company debut, display a keen psychological sense and an almost fanatical precision of execution.
Their boldest stroke, in the climactic love duet that Puccini never got around to writing, is to reverse the roles of the Chinese princess Turandot (a subfreezing femme fatale who decapitates suitors defeated by her riddles) and Calaf (the besotted prince who, in the libretto, melts Turandot with a much-awaited kiss): Here, it is she who kisses him.
Literalists may squirm at this, but to me it seems a plausible revelation of Turandot’s character. It also diverts attention from composer Franco Alfano’s nondescript ending — a goal that could have been fully achieved by adopting Luciano Berio’s provocative completion (2001), which, among its other virtues, avoids Alfano’s Broadway-style reprise of “Nessun dorma,” the opera’s ubiquitous hit single. (Berio’s version is on YouTube; judge for yourself.)
The opening-night cast was imposing, with particularly strong singing in secondary roles. As Turandot, Russian-born soprano Irina Rindzuner rose easily above the tumult; her voice was appropriately hard-edged in the second act, rounder in the third. Yin to her yang was Kelly Kaduce’s Liù, compellingly acted and deeply poignant. Adam Laurence Herskowitz’s robust tenor and sheer physical presence made him a respectable Calaf. But his gestures were disappointingly conventional, and in “Nessun dorma” he overplayed his hand: The piece is a nocturne, not a victory lap.
The nostalgic bureaucrats Ping, Pang and Pong (Matthew Opitz, John Robert Lindsey and Brad Benoit, respectively) have never been livelier; their vaudeville-like antics, minutely plotted by Doucet, were brilliant. Richard Ollarsaba’s understated portrayal of the exiled Timur was tremendously affecting. And 75-year-old Vern Sutton, who first sang with Minnesota Opera (then Center Opera) half a century ago, was a beneficent Emperor. To echo Puccini’s chorus: May he sing 10,000 years!
Conductor Michael Christie drew nuanced and colorful playing from the cramped orchestra; the all-but-omnipresent chorus made a grand noise, but was less unanimous than we’ve come to expect.
Larry Fuchsberg writes about music.