What a difference six decades can make.
"Turandot," set in ancient China, opened at La Scala in 1926 under the baton of Arturo Toscanini. "Nixon in China" opened at the Houston Grand Opera in 1987 in a production by Peter Sellars, renowned for his innovative staging of contemporary works. "Turandot" has the "Nessun Dorma" "Nixon in China" sports "The Chairman Dances."
"Turandot" is admittedly a "warhorse" and was enthusiastically received last weekend as Arizona Opera produced it Jan. 29-30 in Tucson. Anyone care to wager what kind of business "Nixon in China" would do locally?
Puccini's opera takes its theme from the age-old battle of the sexes, but with an additional wrench. If Petruchio had failed to wed and bed Kate in Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew," then it would simply have been their mutual loss. But if Calaf fails to answer correctly the three riddles from the Chinese Princess, off comes his head, the fate of a dozen previous suitors.
Of course, this pretender brings to the royal court not only his love and lust for the Princess but also the brain power to solve the riddles. One hopes his melting of the ice princess through that love and lust will keep them happy ever after or at least for the 10,000 years the Chinese people hope for.
Puccini's final opera is full of what made 19th century European opera the world's standard. Arizona Opera gave it a beautiful, traditionally grand opera set and Doug Provost's very effective lighting design made the most of it.
Bernard Uzan's direction effectively involved the chorus in filling the stage with what looked like hundreds of commoners, and guest conductor James Meena supported the singing with a resonant if rather slowly paced orchestra.
He seemed bent on wringing every possible emotion from the score, making a sluggish pace, especially in the always over-long second act. He wisely used the standard cut in that second act opening scene with Ping, Pang and Pong, but it was still too long, especially at the slow tempo Meena chose.
The three young singers - Andrew Garland, John McVeigh and Bryan Griffin - were delightful to hear and brought fine ensemble and solo singing to their roles throughout the piece, but played in front of a secondary curtain with albeit beautiful Chinese symbols, it was still almost intolerably long.
Antonio Nagore as Jan. 30th's Calaf was excellent. His Master's Degree is from the University of Arizona and he has recently appeared both in "Cyrano" and "Butterfly" in San Francisco.
He sang in full voice from the opening bars of the first act.
There was no "saving" for the "Nessun Dorma" which does not appear until early in Act III in this version. Surprisingly, that highlight aria received only moderate applause. Nagore deserved more.
In the case of soprano Othalie Graham as Turandot, there was considerable disappointment. Arizona Opera's general director Scott Altman, in his pre-curtain remarks, explained that several members of the cast had been suffering from the flu.
Where are these people in September and October? Is there no Mollen Clinic or equal around to give them a flu shot? So perhaps one might forgive Graham if she was not in top vocal form on Jan. 30. She seemed to make most, if not all, the notes in that killer section of extremely high singing of the three riddles, but that did not make her beautiful to listen to.
Nor would it explain the posing that substituted for acting and the general lack of affect in her character.
There was precious little thawing of the ice princess noticeable after the famous kiss which is what typically turns her into a willing lover as she finally presents Calaf to the court as her equal at the end of Act III.
That aside, the production was a beautiful example of a traditional production of a great old warhorse. Both performances nearly sold out and Sunday's received the ubiquitous Arizona standing ovation.
Arizona Opera's season continues on March 5-6 at Tucson Convention Center with Verdi's "Otello." Tickets and information are available at (520) 293-4336 and www.azopera.com.