Like many cultivated European men of his time, Puccini fell in love with a romanticized version of the Far East. Yet his quaint notions of its women--as tenderhearted, betrayable naifs or as capricious ice princesses--gave birth to three of opera's most memorable characters. Two of them are in Turandot (1926), his last and most majestic opera: the eponymous princess, and Liu, a young slave to the deposed emperor of Tatary. The story line, taken from a chinoiserie fantasy by the 18th-century commedia dell'arte dramatist Carlo Gozzi, makes universal the plight of two very different but equally pitiable women whose destinies are shaped by their relationships to men. The cruel Turandot poses three riddles to her suitors; those who fail are beheaded on the spot. Liu, who's accompanied the exiled emperor Timur and his son Calaf to Peking, desperately tries to prevent the smitten Calaf, whom she secretly loves, from taking the challenge. It takes her ultimate self-sacrifice--and Calaf's kisses--to melt Turandot's heart in a fast-paced denouement that deliberately leaves ambiguous the meaning of nobility and love. What distinguishes Turandot from Puccini's previous achievements is its massive quasi-oriental score, which relies heavily on percussion: it belongs squarely in the 20th century, a triumphant finale to the Italian domination of music theater and still a trove of brilliant ideas for today's composers. It boasts arias and duets for both bel canto and Wagnerian singers, perhaps the only opera successful in reconciling the two styles. The cast of this Lyric Opera revival of its 1991 production is headlined by two Wagnerian heavyweights: German soprano Gabriele Schnaut and Canadian tenor Ben Heppner. Schnaut, noted all over Europe for her dramatic soprano singing, is a welcome relief after the vocally erratic Eva Marton, Lyric's previous Turandot; Heppner, already well-known here as McTeague (at Lyric) and for his CSO appearances, should acquit himself admirably in Calaf's signature arias, "Non piangere, Liu" and "Nessun dorma." Liu will be sung by soprano Kallen Esperian, of Illinois, and Timur by the Russian bass Alexander Anisimov. The primary-colored, impressionistic sets and costumes are by David Hockney and his longtime associate Ian Falconer. Saturday, Wednesday, and next Saturday, February 1, 7:30 PM, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker; 312-332-2244. TED SHEN
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Don Rest.