'Turandot' lures opera newbies and Puccini fans
A preview of Seattle Opera's production of "Turandot," starring soprano Lori Phillips.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Turandot'By Giacomo Puccini. Starring Lori Phillips and Antonello Palombi; Renaud Doucet, director, and Asher Fisch, conductor, Saturday-Aug. 18, McCaw Hall, 301 Mercer St., Seattle; $25-$205 (206-389-7676 or www.seattleopera.org).
"This is a wonderful first-time opera — a great introduction for a child, or a date, or anybody who hasn't gone to the opera before. It has such accessible music and an exciting story; you can watch beautiful girls dancing, and so much going on onstage — it's so colorful, so wild, really an orgasm of sound. And, of course, it's great Puccini."
If you weren't already going to Seattle Opera's "Turandot," a conversation with the enthusiastic conductor Asher Fisch would make you race for the box office.
The opera was inspired by a Persian fairy tale, set in China, about a cruel princess and the prince who tries to win her heart. This production, which opens the company's 2012-13 season, is designed by André Barbe and staged by Renaud Doucet, who both promise plenty of grand spectacle: Turandot's robe is studded with the heads of her 40 decapitated suitors, and she wears a huge headdress modeled on one worn by Song dynasty emperors.
"Turandot" also features The Aria. You'll know the famous "Nessun dorma" instantly from all those recordings by The Three Tenors and their tenorial colleagues. And the title role, the ruthless princess who executes her suitors, is portrayed by a soprano who knows Turandot inside and out: Lori Phillips, veteran of more than 50 performances.
It's not an easy role, for any number of reasons. First of all, it is short, so the soprano has less time to make an impact: According to Fisch, the whole role of Turandot encompasses less than 20 minutes of singing time. He calls it "a hard sing, and a little thankless." That's because Turandot must compete for the audience's sympathy with the lovely and doomed slave girl Liu, and also with Calaf, the tenor who gets to sing "Nessun dorma."
Besides, it's a bit off-putting when you have a heroine bloodthirsty enough to behead all suitors who fail to answer the three questions she poses to each.
Finally, we will never know exactly what Puccini had in mind for the development and resolution of Turandot's role, because he died before he could complete the opera, in 1924. (It was finished by another composer, Franco Alfano, at the request of legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, whom Puccini had asked to conduct the premiere. Alfano, whose ending is commonly used in today's productions, worked from Puccini's incomplete sketches and then reused the "Nessun dorma" music for the finale.)
Phillips, however, is undaunted by the challenge of making us love her ice princess.
"This role is in my heart," she says; "I like it a lot. I've been lucky every time I've worked on it, and I've always had great directors. This time is no exception. From the first time I sang Turandot 11 years ago, I've felt it was a good fit for my voice."
Phillips has some insights into Turandot's personality, too.
"She's the ultimate feminist. She has made her choices, and she is fighting for her rights in a male-dominated society. She doesn't need a man to complete her. And she's not just a witch on steroids, either."
Turandot is also channeling the spirit of her ancestor Lou-Ling, who was raped and murdered when her long-ago kingdom was usurped. With each beheading, Turandot is re-enacting vengeance on behalf of Lou-Ling.
Not an easy sell with audiences, you might think, but Turandot has one big advantage: the music. Puccini's grand score requires the biggest voices of any of his operas (which, Fisch reminds us, are so popular that Puccini accounts for 25 percent of all the operas produced today). Turandot's first aria, "In questa reggia," requires a mighty soprano with a lustrous high C.
Fortunately, this isn't a problem for Phillips, whose first Seattle Opera role was in the 2001 "Ring" (she was Gerhilde, one of the Valkyries, and remembers having "a great time"). Phillips, whose credits include roles at the Metropolitan Opera, has an identical twin sister, Mary Phillips, who also has sung with Seattle Opera and the Met. Their voices, however, aren't identical. Lori is a soprano; Mary, a mezzo-soprano, sings lower roles.
"We can sound quite similar," Lori Phillips observes, "but I think the differences in our roles might be more of a temperament thing."
Despite her stage successes and her rapturous reviews (Opera News reported that "her voice started out in excellent form and kept getting better, her clarion upper register sending chills down one's spine"), Lori Phillips says that the various upward-career moves "have not been easy for me. I'm very proud that I am in the Gold Cast now" (referring to Seattle Opera's traditional designation for the opening-night cast). Marcy Stonikas, a former Seattle Opera Young Artist, alternates with Phillips as Turandot.
Phillips will sing opposite the Calaf of tenor Antonello Palombi, a Seattle Opera mainstay known for the power of his high notes. The conclusion of her big "In questa reggia" aria brings the two singers together in a culminating moment of "dueling high Cs," traditionally a point in which both diva and divo give it everything they've got. Which, in this case, should be considerable.
Asked for his prediction, Fisch gives a chuckle.
"Those high Cs," he says, "should be very exciting!"
Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Information in this article, originally published July 29, 2012, was corrected July 30, 2012. A previous version of this story stated the wrong closing date for "Turandot."