The most complex, musically adventurous — and hotly contested — of Puccini’s 12 operas, “Turandot” made its belated Los Angeles Opera debut last weekend. Beset since its creation with controversy, the opera arrived with a whole new set of arguable points.
Puccini died in 1924, with this final score finished only up to, but not including, the final scene wherein the icy Princess Turandot finally succumbs to the amorous importuning of the Prince Calaf. A completion by Puccini disciple Franco Alfano made the work performable; to most observers, including the formidable Arturo Toscanini (who commissioned the completion and conducted the opera’s premiere), the Alfano effort was little more than patchwork, put to shame by the white heat of Puccini’s own ardent score.
The “Turandot” seen in Los Angeles, however, arrived with the U.S. premiere of a brand-new ending, fashioned by Italian composer Luciano Berio, whose own operas bristle with musical challenges undreamed of in Puccini’s creamy romanticism. For the climactic moment of Turandot’s capitulation, which the Alfano version brings in with the standard, grandiose choral whoop-de-do, Berio’s music throttles the music down to a dreamy pianissimo. Preceding this is Berio’s new long orchestral interlude that seems to summarize the emotional undercurrents of the entire evening’s worth of opera.
It might work, but it didn’t this time. Principal singers Audrey Stottler and Franco Farina, for all the fortissimo impact of their vocal equipment, came up with nothing better during that interlude than a display of traditional operatic lurch ‘n’ clutch. Their final scene, dimly lit in what appears — in one of designer Michael Scott’s several curious miscalculations — to be an attic in some long-abandoned palace, offends both ear and eye. (Other miscalculations: obliging tenor Farina to perform the opera’s hit tune, the aria “Nessun dorma” that begins the final act, in almost total darkness; raking the stage set so drastically that Turandot’s first entrance, atop a steep staircase, was invisible to many parts of the house.)
The opera fares better in the hands of conductor Kent Nagano and in the touching loveliness of soprano Hei-Kyung Hong as the tragic slave girl Liu. Director Gian-Carlo del Monaco (son of tenor Mario, who in his day had carried many a “Turandot” performance) directed a fluid, often spooky performance, including a memorable visual that turned the chorus into a slithering human mass to match the slithering humanity of Puccini’s masterful “moonrise” music.
“Turandot” is optimistically scheduled for an 11-performance run — instead of the usual six or seven. Soprano Nina Warren and tenor Ian DeNolfo stand in as the battling lovers on June 7 and 11, with Svetla Vassileva as the replacement Liu.