Popular Turandot: Sensuous Music and Stunning Visual Pleasure

 Original 1926 poster for  Turandot ; public domain.

Original 1926 poster for Turandot; public domain.

I have a weakness for Giacomo Puccini’s opera, Turandot.  My conversion to opera was sealed by hearing a recording on the radio of the great Birgit Nilsson singing Turandot.  At that point opera stepped way ahead of pop and country in my time spent listening to music.  A few years later (2015), I saw Turandot performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.  It starred the fabulous soprano Christine Goerke, and it was the Met’s Franco Zeffirerili production.  It was stunning.  This production is nothing short of visual art.  I sat in my seat unable to take it all in; it was overwhelming.  Now, you have a chance in the next couple of weeks to see Turandot performed in Fairfax and Richmond by the Virginia Opera and in Pittsburgh by the Pittsburgh Opera.  Tickets are selling well; get yours soon!

This opera represents an opportunity ripe for stage directors to not only work, but also to play, to exercise their creativity in colorful and exotic ways.  Turandot is a fairy tale that lends itself to such designs.  It is, however, a grown-up fairy tale revolving around the redemption by love of an embittered, vengeful princess in legendary, ancient China.  Turandot is expected to marry, but she requires that a would be suitor answer three questions correctly to win her royal hand.  If they fail, and many have at the point we enter, they forfeit their lives.  The opera begins with the sad march of one of the failed suitors on his way to be put to death.  The story also features a new prince, Calaf, arriving who becomes stricken by passion to marry Turandot and is willing to risk all, a pure-hearted servant girl, Liu, in love with the prince who makes sacrifices for him, and government ministers who deliver sage wisdom and sometimes comic relief, Ping, Pang, and Pong. 

 Ping (Keith Brown), Pang (Ian McEuen), and Pong (Joseph Gaines). Photography by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Ping (Keith Brown), Pang (Ian McEuen), and Pong (Joseph Gaines). Photography by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

The music is by Giacomo Puccini, which should be enough said.  This is the composer who also wrote La Boheme, Tosca, and Madama ButterflyTurandot is very popular and is performed over 50 times across the globe each year.  The libretto was written by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, based on a play by Carlo Gozzi.  In Turandot, Puccini is at his most melodic and blends in exotic Asian sounds as well.  Also in Turandot, he employs the chorus in inventive and impressive ways that make you take notice of their beautiful sound.  And it has arias that will leave you humming on your way home. You will often find “In questa reggia” sung by Turandot and “Nessun Dorma” sung by Prince Calaf on opera’s greatest hits albums. For musical and visual pleasure, Turandot excels.

 Alexandra Loutsian as the icy princess Turandot. Photography by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Alexandra Loutsian as the icy princess Turandot. Photography by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Turandot also has a mystique about it arising from the fact that Puccini was a perfectionist who argued with his librettists and did rewrites of sections and worked on this opera for years, perhaps struggled to bring it to a conclusion.  In the end, he died before the final scene was written.  A young colleague, Franco Alfano, finished composing the music for the opera as it is heard today.  That final scene is an important one and has generated much discussion of what might have been if Puccini had finished it.  Dr. Glenn Winters, opera composer and Community Outreach Musical Director for Virginia Opera, has written three fun and insightful blog posts about Turandot, including a fascinating discussion of the final scene; he also presents the pre-opera discussions for Virginia Opera performances, which I recommend.  Turandot is sung in Italian with English subtitles. 

Virginia Opera’s production in Faixfax will take place on March 25 and 26 at the George Mason Performing Arts Center and performances in Richmond will occur on March 31 and April 2 in the Carpenter Theater.  Prices in Fairfax vary from $54-110 and from $22-124 in Richmond.  Discounts may be available for students in high school or secondary school.  Do not fear the cheap seats; my last visit to Fairfax, I sat at the back of the balcony where the view and sound were excellent, but as always check when you are looking for cheap seats to make sure that neither the stage or subtitles are blocked from view.  This production of Turandot was initially presented in Norfolk on March 17, 19, and 21 and received a very positive review from the Virginia Pilot-Online, especially for its visual appeal (see link to reviews in the sidebar listing on the right, at the bottom for mobile devices).

Pittsburgh Opera’s production will take place on March 25, 28, 31, and April 2 at the Benedum Center.  Prices vary from $22-170.  Student discounts may be available.  I have not been to the Benedum Center as yet, but plan to attend the world premiere of The Summer King in April.  There is quite a variety of prices for cheap sears in the Benedum Center; check with box office for help with seat selection if desired.