'Turandot' easy on the eyes, the ears

A princess with ice-water in her veins and a penchant for word-games; a prince with a one-track mind; a slave with a debatable sense of duty - it all adds up to one of the most deliciously over-the-top operas in the repertoire, Puccini's "Turandot."

This combination of Chinese fairy tale and passionate Italian music requires many ingredients to be fully satisfying. Although one heaping tablespoon short in the vocal department, the Washington Opera's production, unveiled Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, is awfully tasty.


Many a "Turandot" staging puts so much emphasis on scenic extravagance that the result, to borrow a Lucy Ricardo line, looks like a bad dream you might have after eating too much Chinese food. Zack Brown's sets and costumes dazzle without distracting from the music.

There's an elegant proportion to the design (imaginatively lit by Joan Sullivan-Genthe), with a central staircase that provides a visual anchor for the three acts, drawing the eye to the heights where Turandot lives in isolation and fear. The cloud that descends from the sky, bearing the emperor of China, might look a little silly but, hey, this is opera.


Lotfi Mansouri has provided fluid, sensible stage direction. He succeeds at getting the characters past the plot limitations and revealing something human behind the fairy-tale trappings.

In this goal he has a consistently attentive cast, headed by Alessandra Marc as an imposing, yet clearly vulnerable, Turandot. When the mysterious Calaf answers her first riddle correctly, Marc's face reveals the full horror of what that portends for the princess. And when Turandot's heart finally melts, there is something genuine in Marc's body language, her softening of gesture, the gentle lowering of her head.

Long before all of that, Marc lets us know how in touch she is with the character. It comes during the daunting entrance aria, when Turandot explains that her aversion to men is rooted in the fate of an ancestor who was raped and murdered. Marc files her formidable soprano down to a tender size as she intones the name of that ancestor, Princess Lo-u-ling.

Such concern for details of phrasing and tone coloring gives Marc's performance considerable distinction. So does her abililty to produce strikingly potent high notes; she is one of the few sopranos today who can really nail this music. Never mind the loss of power in the low register; the rest of the voice is a terrific instrument, capable of slicing through Puccini's rich orchestration and pushing you back in your seat. You can't take your ear off her.

The same can be said for Ana Maria Martinez, as the slave Liu, whose self-sacrifice begins the process of thawing out Turandot's heart. Martinez possesses an effortless upper register; this enables her to produce exquisite, melting phrases in "Signore ascolta" in the first act and shape her final scene with extraordinary lyrical and dramatic sensitivity.

These vocally commanding performances were not matched by tenor Ian DeNolfo as Calaf. Although he tried to offer some nuance in the first act, he spent most of the night barking out his music; in the final duet with Turandot he had several rhythmically shaky measures. A couple of well-aimed top notes could not redeem all the coarse, under-pitch ones; tellingly, his "Nessun dorma" was met with silence by the audience. The production deserves better.

Rosendo Flores sang the role of Timur, Calaf's blind father, in firm, warm tones. The three ministers of the court, who provide comic relief and some genuinely charming moments in the opera, were vibrantly portrayed and sung by Daniel Mobbs (Ping), Matthew Lord (Pang) and Corley Evan Rotz (Pong). Robert Baker, floating in that little cloud, delivered the emperor's lines effectively. James Shaffran was the sturdy Mandarin.

Puccini makes the chorus a main character in the opera, a mercurial force for good and evil. The Washington Opera chorus made a rich, almost always superbly disciplined sound. The orchestra also excelled for the most part, responding warmly to Heinz Fricke's highly expressive conducting of the ever-brilliant score.


The Washington Opera production of Puccini's "Turandot, running through March 27, is sold out. For standing toom ticket information, call 202-295-2400.