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Opera / WEEKEND REVIEWS

Final Duet Can't Save Opera Pacific's Gawky 'Turandot'

September 23, 1996|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

The last 15 or so minutes in "Turandot" have got to be one of the biggest letdowns in all of opera. Puccini, who was breaking new musical ground with every page in what turned out to be his last opera, appears to have gotten stuck in trying to find a way to transform a beautiful, vengeful man-hating Chinese princess in ancient China into a loving housewife. After two unproductive years at this curious task, he got sick and died.

When Toscanini conducted the premiere two years later at La Scala in 1926, he simply put the baton down at the point in the opera where Puccini stopped writing. At a time when a great evil was about to grip Europe, this proved a tremendous statement, namely that a hatred too great cannot be transformed. But immediately thereafter the publisher tacked on an artificial triumphant ending by Franco Alfano, which recapitulates earlier big tunes.

So it was not without a slight chill that one watched Opera Pacific open its 11th season Saturday night in Segerstrom Hall of the Orange County Performing Arts Center with a new production of "Turandot" that dramatically triumphed only in the final 15 minutes of Alfano's music. This, however, seemed less political intention than ultimate unspooling of a hapless production.

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Opera Pacific had placed much of its hopes on presenting Jane Eaglen in her first "Turandot." But the soprano found it too trying to prepare the role while she was still singing "Norma" with L.A. Opera. So the first night was entrusted to Alessandra Marc, who was to appear in the second cast.

No one needed feel cheated about that. Marc has a robust voice that can soar. She is already one of our most thrilling Straussians, and she has been impressive in the dramatic Verdi roles. She didn't move very well on stage Saturday, but grand singing poured out.

But otherwise this was shopping-mall opera: bring in one upscale store in hopes to give class to an otherwise tacky environment. The environment, in this case a set by Peter Wolf made for Arizona Opera, looked uncomfortably like the interior of a sprawling American-style Chinese restaurant from the '50s. It hugged the stage in ways that made the Pacific Opera Chorus and supernumeraries, moving like kids in a school play, seem always to be careful where to go, and still banging into the flimsy set now and then. Marc's large rhinestone gown from Malibar Ltd. appeared to give her nothing but trouble, and the glitter on her mouth looked, from where I was sitting, like spittle.

I am not sure what director Roman Terleckyj did. Most singers seemed on their own, but they stood, sang and emotively waved arms in ways suspiciously similar. As the tenor who gets to sing "Nessun Dorma," the aria Luciano Pavarotti has made the anthem of international soccer, Craig Sirianni had mostly a bad night. But he was a Calaf--the young man who wins Turandot's hand by answering her riddles but is not satisfied until he wins her love by singing Alfano's duet--ready to assume a victory pose no matter what.

Otherwise the soprano Guiping Deng made a generally affecting Liu, the young slave girl devoted to Calaf and who kills herself just at the crucial point Puccini stopped composing. Calaf's father, the blind, old Timur, looked feeble on stage but sang with a startlingly booming bass. The commedia dell'arte Ping, Pang and Pong (Frank Hernandez, Howard Bender and Roy Hornblower, respectively) were given awkward comic business and flapped their fans far more than was cute.

The performance's only imagination came from the conductor John Mauceri. While not exactly finding subtlety, he did pace the opera effectively, and he occasionally experimented with sliding tones that added an authenticity to the Chinese folk tunes Puccini adapted. He also brought out interesting details in the orchestra, although the Opera Pacific Orchestra contributed some of its own less interesting ones when the ensemble became scrappy as it sometimes did.

So how did that final duet prove so powerful that it brought an enthusiastic crowd to its excited feet? Mauceri deserves some of the credit. He made an improved version of the two possible ones--Alfano's original and Toscanini's modification of it. Sirianni contributed by finally overcoming whatever it was that was making his tone sound so pinched. And, most of all, Marc, who apparently hadn't had enough to sing earlier on, was ready to pour out climax after extraordinary climax.

For feminists to whom this sort of ending might have proved offensive (although none were visible in the house), Stephanie von Buchau wrote a marvelous essay for the program book that demonstrates the opera need not be interpreted as misogynistic as it seems.

And for those curious about the future of Opera Pacific, General Director David DiChiera--whose name is in bold print and larger type than composer, librettist or any of the performers in the program--tendered his resignation last week. The company will announce a successor today.

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