Arts

Review: LA Opera’s ‘Turandot’ Is a Romance of Epic Consequence

(Center, L-R) Angela Meade and Russell Thomas with Ashley Faatoalia (behind them) and company in LA Opera's 2024 production of "Turandot" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Cory Weaver

Every composer has their oeuvre, but among the masterpieces is always a titan or two that stands head and shoulders above the rest, thriving through the ages. For Giacomo Puccini, whose list of credits is extraordinary, a survey of this ilk presents a striking challenge, though there is a cogent argument to be made that Turandot is an ace of the highest caliber.

Directed by Garnett Bruce in such a way as to heighten suspense and anticipation, LA Opera’s production of the mesmerizing spectacle has earned its distinction as a unanimous crowd-pleaser. It’s a credit not just to a cast that understands the tall order at hand, but set-designer David Hockney, who leaves an indelible impression with his legendary artistic flair, and conductor James Conlon who again intrepidly navigates the musicianship aligned with Puccini’s notations. These favorable elements add up to an immersion so enchanting that even non-opera aficionados might find themselves suddenly smitten. From the very first scene, the word that comes to mind is epic.

Lawrence Dillard (holding up scimitar) in LA Opera’s 2024 production of Turandot at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Cory Weaver

Turandot — referring to the titular Princess Turandot — isn’t just any romance; it has literal life-or-death stakes for any suitor who falls short of solving the three riddles posed by the pure and polar princess. When the Prince of Persia fails in this regard, and is summoned to his execution, an unnamed prince, the son of the exiled Timur (the King of Tartary), is suddenly besieged by the princess’s beauty insofar that he announces himself as her newest pursuer with three gong clangs to the chagrin of Timur, Timur’s assistant Liù, and the Emperor’s ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong. Yet, when this mysterious prince passes the trio of tests, and Turandot refuses to acknowledge the rules by becoming his wife, the prince puts forth an unthinkable gambit of his own: Being no more than a stranger to Turandot, he offers his life as the 14th courter to perish if the never-to-be-possessed royal can uncover his identity prior to dawn. What’s in a name, one might ask? Well, for the prince whose name is revealed to be Calàf, and ultimately Turandot, it means everything in this Peking, China-situated romantic drama.

(L-R) Morris Robinson, Russell Thomas, and Guanqun Yu in LA Opera’s 2024 production of Turandot at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Cory Weaver

Hockney’s sets, and vision dating back to 1992, are as big of an attraction as the Luciano Pavarotti-popularized “Nessun dorma” is, and it’s easy to see why. His design is simultaneously ordered but amorphous, with deep reds and rippled turquoise awnings to go with a serene Asian-inspired backdrop incorporating a bedazzling forced perspective, and then a cavernous blue cave leading out into the unknown in Act III. Ian Falconer’s costumes are display case-worthy, too, featuring ornate robes, multicolored coats, and headdresses signifying an ancient, but venerated, time. Gary Marder, who is the revival lighting designer (Thomas J. Munn was the original guru) uses both light and darkness to accentuate the mood of Hockney’s pieces and breathtakingly unveil a hitherto hidden Turandot in Act I and a group of ribbon-twirling and flag-bearing dancers — choreographed by Kitty McNamee — behind a scrim in Act II.

Angela Meade in LA Opera’s 2024 production of Turandot at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Cory Weaver

Tenor Russell Thomas gives perhaps his best performance to date as the enigmatic, courageous, and passionate Calàf. Clad in a blue robe with gold trim and a red sash around his waist, Thomas musters his character’s confidence from all corners, foreshadowing what is to come by exclaiming “both triumph and love will be mine.” Suffice it to say, Calàf’s wholehearted belief in himself as Turandot’s true love resounds exquisitely in much more than “Nessun dorma” at the top of Act III; in other words, as the male lead, Thomas ensures that he conquers the renowned aria as one of many vocal trials that he overcomes with flying colors.

Soprano Angela Meade, who was last seen at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as Elisabetta in the pandemic-encroached Roberto Devereux, returns with a vengeance as the fierce and unsympathetic Turandot who has her reason for distrusting men: Her ancestress Princess Lo-u-Ling and her kingdom were once ravaged by a long-ago King of the Tartars and his men. As an inheritor of this trauma, Turandot guards against a potentially horrific future by clinging to the narrative of her people’s past. Communicating this truth, Meade bowls over the audience with “In questa reggia,” cobbling the intensity of a thousand suns which reverberates preternaturally and overpowers an entire collective around her. Meade, in addition, does her part to elevate the percussion-intensified riddles scene with Thomas’s Calàf to a level that has audience members on the edge of their seats before evincing her versatility by portraying a more thawed-out, vulnerable Turandot in the opera’s final moments.

(L-R) Terrence Chin-Loy, Ryan Wolfe, and Julius Ahn in LA Opera’s 2024 production of Turandot at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Cory Weaver

As the long-bearded Timur, bass-powerhouse Morris Robinson brings prestige to the stage, offering his robust and expressive timbre when appropriate — no instance more suitable than when Timur’s faithful servant Liù pays the ultimate sacrifice. As the sweet but steely Liù, soprano Guanqun Yu again demonstrates her underratedness as one whose devotion towards the operatic cause shines through fervently. In Act I’s “Signore, ascolta!” as well as Act III’s “Principessa l’amore” and “Tu che di gel sei cinta” arias, Yu gorgeously balances melancholy with effervescence while remaining in steadfast control over each note, her persona resolved to a fate of her own choosing.

Ryan Wolfe, Terrence Chin-Loy, and Julius Ahn are Ping, Pang, and Pong, respectively, in what is a piquant departure from their usual roles. The three Ps, in chalk-white face paint and pastel-suffused garb, are effectively the comic relief in the extravaganza, cautioning Calàf against foolishly putting Princess Turandot, who only has “two arms and legs,” on such a celestial pedestal. But where this triumvirate really earns its keep is at the top of Act II as they gallivant and excitedly muse about the prospect of upcoming nuptials while tempering any expectations with a pragmatic wariness.

The company in LA Opera’s 2024 production of Turandot at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Cory Weaver

Always the consistent player, Alan Williams — as the overseeing Mandarin — portentously lays out Princess Turandot’s law of the land for any man who desires her hand. Not to mention, Ashley Faatoalia makes for a formidable but reasonable Emperor Altoum (father of Turandot), and Sung Bong Kim depicts a brave but sullen Prince of Persia who ambles toward his death.

Being that Turandot requires significant choral support, chorus director Jeremy Frank has prosperously prepared his ominously robed and conically hat-sporting singers who hair-raisingly blare out their bloodlust fueling Turandot’s despotic dictum against romance. The Los Angeles Children’s Chorus makes an appearance, too, with lanterns in tow, adding to the grand specter and mortal risk that underlies love.

(L-R) Russell Thomas and Angela Meade in LA Opera’s 2024 production of Turandot at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Cory Weaver

Of Puccini’s works, Turandot is unique not only for its harmonically sumptuous music — the headlining piece of course being “Nessun dorma” — but its propitious ending. In the years preceding, Puccini preferred to conclude his operas, rife with individual odysseys marked by suffering, on a somber note. If the famed Italian composer had lived to finish it, Turandot’s lasting message may have been amended, but it wasn’t and instead it lives on as a triumph — because it resolves exultantly and because its completion honors the master composer as an enduring glimmer of his legacy. Audiences are understandably infatuated, vociferously applauding an array of visual and aural splendor over three hours, confirming there is no better opera than Turandot to bookend LA Opera’s 2023-24 season.

There are three more performances of LA Opera’s 2024 production of Turandot at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion — on Sunday, June 2nd at 2 pm, Wednesday, June 5th at 7:30 pm, and finally Saturday, June 8th at 7:30 pm. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit laopera.org.

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