The riddle of Turandot

A scene from Puccini’s “Turandot,” now at Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Drive, through Jan. 27, 2018.

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

What: “Turandot”
Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through Jan. 27
Tickets: Lyricopera.org

Puccini’s final opera, “Turandot,” was unfinished at the time of the composer’s death. Puccini’s publisher and conductor Arturo Toscanini commissioned Franco Alfano to complete the opera using the extensive sketches left on the composer’s desk.

The resulting opera is sometimes seen as enigmatic as the riddles that lead so many of the title character’s would-be suitors to their death.

Lyric Opera of Chicago has assembled an international cast and creative crew to bring the story to life and while not a perfect production, there is much to like.

The cast is led by Ryan Center alum Amber Wagner, most recently seen at Lyric in the 2014/15 season as both Elisabeth (“Tannhäuser”) and Leonora (“Il trovatore”). The role of Turandot, a beautiful princess with ice-cold blood running through her veins, is a punishing one and Wagner has most of the goods. She sounds strident at times, which weakens her performance. But she has the regal haughtiness the manslayer requires, as well as the stamina. What is a terrible pity is that stage director Rob Kearley doesn’t ever set her about moving across the stage in any way that doesn’t seem entirely formal and unnatural. Even when she discovers love, she remains physically stiff and awkward.

The Italian tenor Stefano La Colla makes his Lyric debut as Calaf, the handsome prince of this fairy tale. His voice is shimmering, and his acting earnest and convincing. He’s a romantic and heroic figure who immediately captures your attention and your heart. His performance of “Nessun dorma,” (“no one may sleep”) the opera’s most famous aria, is marvelous.

Maria Agresta, another Italian making her Lyric debut, is an arresting and compelling Liu. Her unrequited love for Calaf is palpable and she is able to spin out beautiful high phrases in a gorgeous near-whisper. (Janai Brugger will take over this roll for the January performances.)

Andrea Silvestrelli, who has done some fine work at Lyric over the years, brings a tired and worn voice to Timur, the father of Calif.

Zachary Nelson, Rodell Rosel, and Keith Jameson are Ping, Pang, and Pong, respectively. These ministers to Turandot do many different things throughout the opera: they warn, they fret, they prepare, and they imagine themselves far from the princess. Here again Kearley is disappointing, offering only occasional flecks of imagination to reinforce the humor and the pathos. So much more could have been done with this fine trio of singers.

Two Ryan Center singers fill out the cast: Josh Lovell does a fine job as Turandot’s father and Patrick Guetti opens the opera with bold and incisive singing as a Mandarin.

Sir Andrew Davis draws opulent, exciting sound from the pit. The music is lush and dynamically exciting.

The Lyric Opera Chorus plays a large role in the opera, often onstage to comment or react to what is happening. They are spot-on perfect.

Director Kearley’s strength is that he knows how to create a tableau. Even when the stage is jam-packed with singers and actors, he arranges them harmoniously and moves them with grace and purpose. Too bad he doesn’t do this at all well at the individual level.

Allen Charles Klein’s production design isn’t terrible, but it’s a big letdown from the brilliantly colored David Hockney set well known to Lyric audiences. Klein’s set, with a dragon running through it, is nearly always under lit.

“Turandot” runs 2 hours and 50 minutes, including two intermissions.