Love thaws the ice queen with the Dayton Opera


The scale and spectacle of Turandot is something not to be missed

By Eric Street

Nobody will be sleeping when Dayton Opera plunges you into the dazzling alternative universe of Puccini’s last and most richly luxuriant work, Turandot. It’s a world of palatial splendor and high romance, set in China’s Forbidden City in legendary old Peking. Faraway, yes, but it’s coming to the Mead Theatre of the Schuster Center. There’s no need to learn Chinese–Turandot will be sung in Italian with English surtitles.

“This is a piece about spectacle, both visual and vocal,” says Johnathon Pape, Stage Director for the production. “The sheer power of the voices, the number of people onstage, and the out-sized nature of the story all add to this larger than life feeling. And when you add the glorious melody of ‘Nessun dorma’ it is the icing on a very delicious, if elaborate, cake. That’s why everyone loves this opera!”

Soprano Kara Shay Thomson, who will sing the demanding title role of Turandot, agrees. “If you’ve never been to an opera, then make this your first! It has everything—glorious music, incredible costumes, stunning sets and a huge ensemble of characters to create one of the biggest shows the Schuster Center has ever seen,” she says.

Dayton audiences will recall Kara Shay Thomson’s powerful Magda Sorel in Menotti’s The Consul. “In some ways both Magda and Turandot carry similar characteristics in their basic human character,” Thomson muses. “Both women are scarred by their past and filled with trepidation about their own future. Even though they come from very different backgrounds, at the core of each woman is the desire to be loved. Dramatically, I am completely drained after portraying Magda. I don’t know yet how I will feel when I am done with Turandot since it is a role debut, but get back to me after May 20 and I’ll let you know,” she laughs.

Puccini’s swan song is his grandest and most exotic opera, splashed against the atmospheric backdrop of ancient Imperial China. But despite the scenic spectacle, it’s Puccini’s glorious melodies that will leave you breathless, including the passionately yearning Nessun dorma (Nobody sleeps), remembered by many as Luciano Pavarotti’s signature aria.

Along the way, you’ll encounter some of Puccini’s most vivid and unforgettable characters—passionate, determined Calaf; haunting, self-sacrificing Liu, who has long secretly loved him; aged Timur, Calaf’s dethroned father; and beautiful but chilling Princess Turandot, whose regal allure has enticed uncounted hapless suitors to a swift and grisly decapitation.

“One of the biggest challenges of Turandot,” says Stage Director Pape, “is how to effectively thaw the ice queen. She has a lot of baggage, stretching all the way back to her ancestor who was raped and killed. Turandot’s need to avenge her ancestor through the blood of her own suitors is pretty hard to erase with one kiss from a tenor, even if he did sing a fabulous ‘Nessun dorma.’ We have to see the cracks appearing in her facade and the cost of holding it up. Her fear of Calaf is also her fear of her own need. When Turandot sees Liù sacrifice herself for love, and when she sees the outpouring of love and respect for Liù from the crowd, it changes everything.”

The large forces that Dayton Opera’s Artistic Director Thomas Bankston has assembled are already known to Dayton audiences. Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Neal Gittleman will lead from the podium and Johnathon Pape returns to stage the opera. “The last production I directed in Dayton was La Fille du Regiment/Daughter of the Regiment in 2011. Turandot is pretty far removed from that charming, frothy comedy. There isn’t much that’s frothy about Turandot, which is not to say that it isn’t really enjoyable—just in a different way,” Pape explains.

“The attraction to the role of Turandot for me began many years ago when I first saw it at the Met,” Kara Shay Thomson recalls. “I was mesmerized by the costumes, the set and the incredible ensemble work required to create a Turandot production. At that time I was still singing Mozart heroines and never thought I would someday wear the crown of the Principessa. And now, as I have progressed in my career, I am finally able to embrace this vocally dynamic and challenging role into my repertoire. This is definitely going to be a highlight in my career and I can’t wait for opening night!”

Turandot’s ardent and ultimately successful wooer is tenor Jonathan Burton. After a recent turn as Calaf in Turandot, Opera News proclaimed that Burton “produced a wonderfully shaded ‘Nessun dorma’ that included brilliant top notes.” The Herald Tribune raved he was “a tenor who can add substantial flesh to Calaf as well as deliver the most famous aria of Italian grand opera to satisfaction is a rare find…Burton hit the jackpot with his delivery of ‘Nessun dorma’ that could stand confidently next to our worn recordings of Corelli, Domingo and Pavarotti.”

The role of Liu will be sung by soprano Chloé Olivia Moore, about whom the Washington Post said, “Chloé Moore’s clarion entrance jolted an already electric scene. Her voice has a wealth of shades, which she uses with intelligence. Her voice was the most attractive and well-developed in the young cast.”

Other cast members include bass Harold Wilson as Timur, Kenneth Stavert as Ping, Robert Norman as Pang, Michael Anderson as Pong, and Bradley Mattingly as a Mandarin. Tenor David Sievers will make his Dayton Opera debut as The Emperor Altoum. Jeffrey Powell leads the Dayton Opera chorus of Imperial guards, executioner’s men, boys, priests, mandarins, dignitaries, eight wise men, Turandot’s handmaids, soldiers, standard-bearers, musicians, ghosts of suitors, crowd. “I’m looking forward to the challenge,” says Johnathon Pape. “Bring ‘em on!”

About the Composer
Puccini famously called himself a “mighty hunter of wild fowl, opera librettos and attractive women.” The evidence supports each of his claims. Born in Lucca, Italy in 1858, Giacomo Puccini was preceded by four generations of professional musicians in his family. His father, a church organist and choir director, died when Puccini was only five, leaving his pregnant wife and seven children in slender circumstances.

Earning money by playing the piano in taverns and, some say, bordellos, Puccini also worked as a church organist in Lucca from the age of 14. He smoked from boyhood, and local legend has it that the youngster pawned organ pipes one by one to purchase cigarettes, carefully avoiding notes he had already sold to conceal the crime. He improvised his services, often weaving snatches of popular operas into the postludes. Puccini seems to have developed his love for opera at an early age, and as a teenager he walked the 18 miles to Pisa to hear Verdi’s Aida.

Later, as a music student studying on scholarship in Milan, he roomed with Pietro Mascagni, who later composed Cavalleria Rusticana. The pair seems to have led a bohemian life similar to the students depicted in La Boheme. Money was tight, and when the landlord came looking for Puccini, he hid in the wardrobe while Mascagni regretfully announced he was ‘out.’ They weren’t allowed to cook in the room, so Puccini played the piano with vigor to cover the sounds of Mascagni‘s food preparation. Puccini, who once said “On the day on which I am no longer in love, you can hold my funeral,” pawned his only coat to take out a ballet dancer from La Scala, an incident which appears in his La Boheme.

Like Mozart, Glinka, and Scriabin, Puccini was happy to compose when other people were around, and their noise and conversation did not seem to bother him. A notorious procrastinator, he composed in late night sessions lasting till three or four in the morning, fueled by strong coffee and the many, many unfiltered cigarettes that contributed to his final illness.

After achieving only modest results with his first two operas, Puccini struck paydirt in 1893 with Manon Lescaut. It established his reputation as a composer and insured that his days of hiding in a wardrobe to avoid creditors were at a merciful end. His ensuing operas include La Boheme, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La Fanciulla del West, La Rondine, and Il Trittico, a trio of one-act operas including Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica,
and Gianni Schicchi.

Turandot
Puccini began sketching music for his last opera early in 1921. In search of authentic Chinese touches, he learned authentic tunes from a Chinese music box and studied Chinese folk tunes, three of which appear in the score. Work progressed slowly due to the distractions of a car wreck (Puccini loved fast cars nearly as much as he loved women), domestic problems, and health concerns as his throat cancer from years of heavy smoking progressed.

The composition of Turandot proved particularly laborious and took almost five years. The orchestration was almost complete in early 1924. Only the great final duet after Liù’s death was lacking— the scene in which Princess Turandot is transformed by the unknown Prince’s kiss into a warm-hearted human capable of love. Puccini wrote various fragments and concepts for the finale, but had not completed the opera. On November 4, 1924, Puccini was rushed to a Brussels clinic to be treated for his cancer. He died November 29.

Turandot, already scheduled for its world premiere at La Scala under Toscanini, was left unfinished with the vital scene in which the icy princess ‘melts’ missing. Toscanini commissioned Franco Alfano, a former pupil of Puccini’s, to use the composer’s final sketches and undertake the task of completing the opera.

On April 25, 1926, Turandot premiered at La Scala. The section finished by Alfano was not performed opening night. Following Liù’s death scene, Toscanini put down his baton, turned to the public and announced: “Here the Maestro died.” Dayton audiences will see the shortened form of Alfano’s ending normally used today.

To ‘t’ or not to ‘t’
According to Puccini scholar Patrick Vincent Casali, the final t is silent in the opera’s and title character’s name. Soprano Rosa Raisa, who created the role, says that Puccini never pronounced the final t. Eva Turner, another prominent Turandot, did not pronounce the final t, as television interviews with her attest. The high musical tessitura of many of Calaf’s utterances of the name makes sounding the final t all but impossible. On the other hand, Simonetta Puccini, the composer’s granddaughter and keeper of the Villa Puccini and Mausoleum, has said the final t must be pronounced. When Italo Marchini questioned her about this in 2002, Ms. Puccini said that in Italian the name would be Turandotta. In the Venetian dialect of Carlo Gozzi, from whose short story the plot is drawn, final syllables are usually dropped and words end in a consonant. Turandott would make the name Venetian. However you pronounce it, you have experts backing you! With or without a final t, Turandot will close this season of The Great Ones in grand style!

Turandot will be at the Schuster Center, 1 West 2nd St., Dayton for two performances only, May 18 at 8:00 p.m., and May 20 at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are available by calling 937.228.3630 or visiting ticketcenterstage.com. For more information about Dayton Opera and this production, visit daytonopera.org.

 

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Eric Street is Professor of Music at UD with a doctorate from Indiana University. His Carnegie Hall debut led to performances in 36 countries on six continents. An opera lover, he’s taught Opera History and accompanied over two-dozen singers from the Metropolitan and NYC Opera. Reach him at EricStreet@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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