Opening Nights: Turandot

Seattle Opera piles spectacle upon spectacle.

In Chinese tradition, red is the color of good fortune and happiness. In the West, it suggests blood and aggression. André Barbe must have been aware of this twin symbolism when he drenched his smashing production of Turandot—that bloody opera set in China—in the color. With his Zeffirellian set (packed with extras and a large chorus), over-the-top costumes, Guy Simard's lurid lighting, and the Seattle Symphony on overdrive in the pit under Asher Fisch (the company's go-to conductor for the repertory's most opulent scores), Seattle Opera piles spectacle upon spectacle—as if to reassure the audience with a Mark Twain paraphrase: Rumors of our straitened finances have been greatly exaggerated.

The first thing you see, as the curtain rises to Puccini's stentorian brass dissonances, are masklike set pieces representing suitors' severed heads. Vowing to remain virginal, princess Turandot has challenged any potential husband with three riddles, death being the price of failure. In Saturday's opening-night cast, Lori Phillips sang the role fervently and powerfully enough to be heard over the considerable tumult, yet never shook off a slight sense of insecurity in her top range. Sounding similar—passionate but a shade shrill—was Lina Tetriani as servant girl Liù. (The production misses a trick here; it can be marvelously effective when this opera's two sopranos, empress and slave, present strongly contrasting voice types.)

The sheer stage presence of Antonello Palombi as Calaf, the hero, simply negated the character's plausibility issues: He takes on Turandot's life-risking challenge after just one glimpse of her from afar, and he spends nearly the whole opera plotting to wed and bed a woman against her will—without, if possible, coming off as a sociopath (cf. Giovanni, Don). Palombi's Act 3 "Nessun dorma"—the most popular tenor aria not only in this opera, but arguably in any—was gorgeous. He has a huskier sound, smoky and virile rather than sweet or brilliant; if any listeners who couldn't get Pavarotti out of their ears were disappointed, they were outshouted by a well-deserved ovation. It's always fun to hear Puccini's greatest hit as a concert-encore bonbon, but so much more thrilling when a character's actually living the words.

 
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