"Turandot" closes Michigan Opera Theatre's 43rd season. Photo: John Grigaitis

A Story For The Ages: Yet Again, Love Conquers All

By John Quinn

"Turandot" is an Italian opera based on a Persian folk tale set in China. Its multiculturalism is positively all-American. Michigan Opera Theatre closes its 43rd season with a stunning production of one of the grandest of grand operas.

"Turandot" was composer Giacomo Puccini's last work and remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1924. (It is recorded that he died with the manuscript in his hands.) There's universal appeal in the work, because Puccini and his librettists, Guiseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, chose a plot so basic, so "human" that its main device transcends cultures and is familiar everywhere - The Riddle Game.

Once upon a time in China, far, far away there lived a princess "beautiful as jade, cold as steel," named Turandot. Heartless and cruel, she had sworn a sacred oath that no man would possess her unless he answered three riddles. The price of failure was death. On the night the unlucky Prince of Persia loses his head, Calaf is reunited with his elderly father, Timur, the deposed King of Tartary. Timur wanders through the lands, accompanied by one faithful servant, Liu, a slave girl who has secretly loved Prince Calaf since the time he once smiled at her.

Princess Turandot appears, and Calaf is immediately head over heels in love. Fortunately, he keeps that head; he answers the riddles. Turandot regrets her oath, and refuses to marry him. Calaf boldly offers her an out: If she discovers his name before dawn, she can chop off his head. There is tragedy, there is triumph, but all good folk tales end with "And they lived happily ever after.

The MOT production is a visual and aural delight. Massive set pieces evoke the majesty of ancient Peking; a massive chorus under the direction of Suzanne Mallare Acton offers rich voices in keeping with their striking costumes. Conductor Valerio Galli, making his MOT debut, brings out a warm, lush sound from his orchestra. The tempo is sprightly, but romantic.

When discussing the principal singers, the first word that comes to mind is "power." Soprano Lise Lindstrom and tenor Rudy Park making their MOT debut are extraordinarily well paired. The role of Turandot is considered one of the most challenging in the repertoire, but Lindstrom soars through her aria, "In questa reggia," brilliantly balancing the fire and ice of her character. Korean born and Italian trained, Rudy Park owns an exceptionally broad lower range, a relentless force beating down opposition. His third act aria, "Nessun dorma," which has taken on a pop culture life of its own, is memorable; he easily rises above the musical crescendo to deliver the extended high "B "that marks the piece.

(As is common in productions with strenuous vocal scores, the principal parts are double cast. On May 16 and 18, "Turandot" will be sung by soprano Othalie Graham and Calaf by tenor Giancarlo Monsalve.)

Soprano Donata D'Annunzio Lombardi sings the role of the fragile Liu; her aria, "Signore, ascolta!" is a wonder of inflection and modulation.

A gory story needs a little comic relief; in "Turandot," that would be its three courtiers, Ping, Pang and Pong. And while a modern sensibility might find the names mildly racist, the roles are exuberantly rendered by Eugene Villanueva, Julius Ahn and Scott Ramsay with just the right touch of whimsy. The trio sings "Ho una casa nell honan" with such a sense of yearning it would touch the heart of the iciest princess.

Binding this complex project together is stage director Garnett Bruce, whose breadth of vision resulted in a memorable night at the opera. If "Turandot" is a reliable indication, Michigan Opera Theatre is in for a glorious Season 44.

REVIEW:

'Turandot'

Michigan Opera Theatre at Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway St., Detroit. 7:30 p.m. May 14, 16 & 17, and 2:30 p.m. May 18. 3 hours (with 2 intermissions). $25-125. 313-237-SING. http://www.michiganopera.org

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