By Jane Recker
It’s easy to write off opera as a crusty, archaic art form accessible only to those with obscene amounts of money or musical education. Lyric Opera’s Turandot is anything but that. This gorgeously elaborate, sexy production is a feast for the eyes and entertaining for all.
Puccini’s final opera is set in China, where the Princess Turandot has decreed she will not marry unless a suitor can answer her three riddles. Any suitor who answers incorrectly is brutally executed. Prince Calaf thinks he’s up to the challenge and enters himself into the ring. When he answers all three riddles correctly, Turandot begs him not to take her as her prize. Calaf responds that he doesn’t want to take Turandot by force, but, rather, wants Turandot to be “blazing with love.” Over the course of the night Turandot finds that she does love him, and the kingdom celebrates that the two will wed.
Amber Wagner is unstoppable as Turandot. Her bio states that she “[possesses] one of the most remarkable voices of her generation.” It’s not wrong. With a strong, resonant low range and piercing, chill-inducing high notes, Wagner’s voice is the definition of power. It’s a gift to the audience that she gets to sing so much of “In Questa Reggia” unaccompanied, allowing her own overtones to mix and ring throughout the hall. Wagner’s voice still speaks true when accompanied though, and has the strength to cut through a full orchestra and massive chorus. Her performance is the lifeblood of the entire opera.
Wagner is joined by an all-star supporting cast. Andrea Silvestrelli brings a deep, throaty bass to the exiled King Timur, and Maria Agresta is stunning as the loyal Liú, singing a compelling . “Signore, Aascolta!” and “Tu Che Di Gel Sei Cinta.” Zachary Nelson, Rodell Rosel, and Keith Jameson bring an essential comic relief as Ping, Pang, and Pong, respectively. The trio deftly navigates between snarky humor and a genuine lament over the state of their country. The chorus also deserves a nod for staying tightly connected, even with massive numbers.
Unfortunately Stefano La Colla as Prince Calaf couldn’t keep up with the rest of the cast at the reviewed performance. While his interpretation of the character is spot-on, his voice lacked. He often seemed to be straining for the high notes, over supporting them and causing them to go sharp.
The true beauty of this production lies in the design. Allen Charles Klein’s costume design is stunning, drawing from oriental influences with its arrays of silk and gauze. Even more impressive is the range of styles represented onstage with such a massive chorus. The first entrance of Turandot in Act II is one of the most striking moments of the production. Just when you think the stage is filled, in enter more chorus members in an even more elaborate array of costumes.
Klein’s deceptively simple scenic design works in perfect synergy with Chris Maravich’s lighting design. The basis of the set is a giant wooden Chinese dragon with a car-sized, pearl-like egg held in its claw, and a plain scrim for the background. Through the gorgeously complex lighting, the emotions of the scene can be conveyed through the stagnant set with incredible range. Where one moment the entire stage might be soaked in a blood-red crimson of anger, the next scene features the set bathed in the cool blue of moonlight, complete with a moon projection on the dragon’s egg. The effect is breathtaking.
The brilliance of the design and the pure, raw talent from the musicians onstage and in the pit give a new hope to the future of opera as an art form. This is not the stodgy, dusty art form of centuries past. This is the opera of the 21st century, a decadent, passionate treat for any theater lover.
Lyric Oper of Chicago presents “Turandot” at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Upper Wacker Drive, Chicago, through January 27. More information and tickets are available here.