The moment the curtain rises on a vermillion hued scene, great epics of cinema featuring casts of thousands come to mind—Ben Hur, Gandhi, and the like. It’s not that the numbers in the Lyric Opera Chorus with supernumerary padding has multiplied so many times over. Rather, it’s the way in which this superb Production Design by Allen Charles Klein, coupled with exquisitely timed lighting design by Chris Marovich, brings cinematographer-like sensibilities to bear on this interpretation of Puccini’s last opera and fairy tale, Turandot.
We quickly become spoiled and acclimate to thoughtful visual touches that highlight the emotional aspect of a scene. For example, when the masses are calling for the beheading of yet another failed suitor trying to win the ice princess Turandot’s hand, the guards tower above them and in what seems to be a shortened smaller stage, such that you feel the crowded mob scene, the throng, and the mass hysteria of arms punctuating the air like the executioner’s axe all the more. It’s quite the spectacle—non-stop— with a distinctive dragon motif in the Act I set that in later Acts merge into a web of angled tree limb articulations, a perch for the white lit emperor, a runway of sorts for Turandot’s entrance, and ever morphing hues from red to white to blue to gray, and back to the red of blood and passions.
Lyric Opera production showcases epic score
That Puccini’s score similarly shouts EPIC! makes all these production choices so apt. A theme of the Orient weaves in and out of a score that feels like non-stop grand sweeps from brass, strings, percussion-- all.
In this production, the Chicago Childrens Choir under Josephine Lee’s baton—which gives us wavy arms in their permutation of their trademark way of finding gestures to accompany their performance—we hear a Chinese folk song. Looking around the audience and noting the greater number of ethnic Chinese opera lovers than on the usual opening night, this writer wondered if this folk tune was as basic as Mary Had a Little Lamb, or if Puccini reached and found something a bit more obscure.
An Opera for Fairy Tale Lovers
For those of us whose childhood went way beyond the red, green, and blue books of fairy tales into the realm of the fuscia, magenta and chartreuse collections to feed our bottomless appetites for the genre, the story line of Turandot will feel like homecoming week. The princess is a beauty whom many suitors seek, but trying to win her hand comes with a rather large catch. She gives you three riddles and if you don’t guess correctly you not only don’t win her hand, but you lose your head—literally. A prince comes along who is undaunted, and in the end—as any reader of fairy tales knows- of course he gets the girl. There is a modern patina to the tale, for example in Princess Turandot explaining that she witnessed her woman kin being vanquished by cruel men, and she just won’t brook the same fate.
As a side note, much is made in the program notes of the controversial way in which the Prince forces a kiss on Turandot, as though he crossed a line. This writer imagines that essay was inked in those more innocent times —a month or so ago??— before we had to endure Harvey Weinstein’s mug on nightly TV and all that followed. Not that we have to take an opera’s story line seriously ever, but GEE, at least this was a guy who pined for consensual joys wanting her to burn with the same desire for him as he had for her. That’s so predictable to readers of fairy tales who know that a prince would have never grabbed her in her “whatever”, and now are trying to adjust to newly revealed realities in the real world.
But this was a chance to forget all that, program notes notwithstanding.
Amber Wagner—whom some of us have loved ever since we heard her worry that her size might work against her in the movie chronicle of the Metropolitan Opera’s rising star competition, The Audition— sings the demanding title role. Puccini might put Wagner through the equivalent of vocal high jumps but it is the other female soprano, Maria Agresta, playing the role of ever devoted servant Liù, who seems to get the very beautiful music that you may associate so much with Puccini.
Agresta is joined by two other Italians in leading roles—Andrea Silvestrelli as Timur, father of the Prince, and Stefano LaColla as Prince Calef. Though Silvestrelli doesn’t have that many bars to sing, whenever his bass rings out he seems to be summoning sound from earth’s magna core. It’s astonishing!
LaColla singing the male lead is often placed by Director Rob Kearley in center stage. Often, it is his crisp tenor that reaches out from duets, trios, etc. to be the clarion keeper of melody. And, do know that he does get a heartfelt ovation from the crowd – and time from Conductor Andrew Davis for his bows and kisses to the audience—when he sings the much anticipated classic of all opera repertoire, Nessum Dorme.
More of the modern patina overlaying the fairy tale is sung by the trio of ministers who recount what a drag it has been for everyone to watch the cruelty of this ice princess play out-- Ping (Zachary Nelson), Pang (Rodell Rosel), and Pong (Keith Jameson). The distinctness of these three performers’ voices is easy to appreciate. This writer couldn’t stop ogling their costumes, and especially the head dresses that seemed inspired by both Chinese opera and garb in Lao hill country. (Costumes: Chris Maravich).
So much beauty to hear, with so much visual oomph to take in! --Highly Recommended.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Dec. 5, 8, 11, Jan. 10, 13 and 27 at 7:30pm
Dec. 14, 17, Jan. 17 and 21 at 2pm
Civic Opera House
20 North Wacker