Sunday June 24 2:14 pm

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"Turandot" - Review by Jeffrey Leibham

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Rob Kearly has directed this in an almost reverential fashion, presenting it more as a ceremonial pageant than a doomed love affair. He seems to have struggled in getting to the emotional heart of the matter. Some productions play upon the fairy-tale quality of the libretto, but none of that is evident here. Mr. Kearly, while doing a splendid job with the large scale scenes involving an expanded chorus seems to pull away from the quieter moments. It doesn't help to create any intimacy when he has his principal players standing what feels like miles apart from each other on the massive stage. However, the fault is strictly not his alone. "Turandot" has always been problematic. Puccini himself struggled for two years trying to complete this opera to his satisfaction but, unfortunately, he died before its premiere in 1926. Franco Alfano, shaping the extensive sketches and outline that Puccini had left behind, created the ending that is almost universally standard and is the version that is presented here.

As the eponymous heroine, soprano Amber Wagner is a formidable presence on stage. This is a very daunting role (which she debuted earlier this season at Vancouver Opera) but it may take several years for her to fully grow into it entirely. Vocally she is stellar, potently emitting waves of powerful sound. She plays the ultimate "ice princess" with plenty of pride and an arrogant gaze but many of her mannerisms and gestures are of a mechanical nature. With her domineering attitude she is as much of an enigma as the three riddles that prospective suitors must solve in order to win her admiration. Yet Ms. Wagner remains very one-dimensional as Turandot -- aloof and unattainable -- even after her supposed conversion to profess her love for the mysterious stranger who did solve those three riddles. It would have been nice to see that transformation as the ice in her cold and stoic heart actually starts to melt.

As for that mysterious stranger, who is in fact Prince Calaf of Tartary, Italian tenor Stefano La Colla is making his Lyric debut. Clearly comfortable in the role, Mr. La Colla grasped the subtle nuances of the score and delivered a stirring "Nessun dorma." Surprisingly, he broke character after his aria and walked to the footlights to accept the audience's ovation. It became rather jarring to resume the action in Act Three following that stunt. There seems to be no real connection between these two stars, no bond that will enhance the love that they presumably share or any kindling that will engulf them in burning desire. The only sparks that you'll see on stage are from the swords that the executioner is sharpening on a massive stone-wheel in preparation of slaying the Prince of Persia in Act One.

More successful are the minor characters of Liu (soprano Maria Agresta in her Lyric debut) -- the slave girl who is secretly in love with Calaf -- and also the three ministers who act as a Greek chorus -- Ping (baritone Zachary Nelson), Pang (tenor Rodell Rosel) and Pong (tenor Keith Jameson). Ms. Agresta was magnificent in handling her role of the faithful servant who refuses to give any information about the man that she has been in love with since she was a child. In the character of Liu, Puccini has given the most romantic passages found in this work, while the score is pushing more towards modernism in his musical themes for the other key players. Ms. Agresta will be replaced by Chicago native Janai Brugger, who will take over the role for all of the January performances. Ping, Pang and Pong are all joyously played and bring a bit of jocular amusement to the otherwise quite somber proceedings.

Sir Andrew Davis wraps up his third consecutive appearance at the podium this season with his usually masterful skill. The orchestra was sounding particularly lush in the intoxicating splendor of Puccini's luxuriant score. Listen closely for the use of Chinese cymbals and other Eastern percussive instruments as well as the coquettish flourish of the xylophone. The specially expanded chorus, under the direction of Michael Black, produced glorious sound at all times and was nicely supported by the Chicago Children's Choir in the famous "Chinese music box" segment from Act One. Ms. Josephine Lee is the Children's Choir Master.

Production Designer Allen Charles Klein has created a single set with certain minor alterations or additions for each of the three acts. Basically a large bronze dragon, stage right is the massive head and stage left is the serpentine tail. On the dragon's underbelly is a long staircase leading to three semi-disks that act as different playing areas. In one clawed paw the dragon is holding a kind of tree house and in the other hand, his three talons encase a gigantic orb, which acts as the rising moon, the sun and also a crystal ball through which Princess Turandot can observe all the commotion in her kingdom. Chris Maravich's lighting design is subtle and unobtrusive, incorporating four separate color schemes in the first act alone.

Don't let the coldness of this notorious "ice princess" (or the winter climate in Chicago, for that matter) keep you away from this "Turandot." After all, it certainly is a worthwhile spectacle that only Lyric can provide with such sweeping grandeur.

“Turandot” runs through January 27th at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. Best parking option: The Poetry Garage, 201 West Madison, pay $12 in advance at www.thepoetrygarage.com. Valet parking is also available - $30.

Running time is 3 hours with two 25-minute intermission. Remaining performances are January 10th, 13th and 27th at 7:30 pm; December 14th, 17th, January 17th and 21st at 2:00 pm. Tickets start at $69. Discounted tickets for children ($20-$50 with purchase of adult ticket/s) may be reserved by phone only. FYI (312) 827-5600 or www.lyricopera.org/turandot.