For its last production of the season, Minnesota Opera (a Knight Arts grantee) is running an opulent iteration of Puccini’s final opera, “Turandot.” Two sets of lead players are performing in rotation for the show’s one-week run; the matinee I attended featured spinto tenor Scott Piper (as the love-struck, exiled prince Calaf) and sopranos Christie Hageman and Helen Todd, respectively in the roles of Liù, the long-suffering slave girl, and Turandot, Peking’s bloodthirsty and adamantly unavailable riddling princess.
This is grand Italian opera, ably executed. Minnesota Opera’s take on Puccini’s crowdpleasing work is traditional, but in no way stodgy. Andre Barbe’s sumptuous costumes – vivid in teal and ochre, crimson, orange and black offset by accents in gold, creamy white and silver – play beautifully against the clean, Asiatic elegance of his set design. The stylized, spiked heads of Turandot’s unsuccessful suitors are particularly arresting – at once beautiful and chilling. The overall effect is regal and formidable.
Minnesota Opera’s chorus is simply magnificent; for this production, in particular, some of the most memorable, moving melodic lines of the score come from orchestra and chorus. The company’s large ensemble of voices carries that musical through-line with the sort of emotional power that consistently raises the hair on your neck, doing so with nuance rather than blunt, aural force – a notable achievement given the sheer number of voices involved. As ever, the orchestra plays tightly together under the deft direction of conductor Michael Christie.
All the lead roles are pulled off with aplomb, but two performances merit special mention. Scott Piper is an emerging voice in the international opera scene, and he's a powerhouse talent. He takes the opera’s most familiar, best-loved arias (e.g. “Nessun Dorma,” “Non piangere, Liù”) and manages to make them his own – no mean feat considering the famed tenor who has long held popular dominion over those same tunes. And like “Big Luciano,” Piper is an ebullient showman, his voice at once lusty and mellifluous. The show’s other standout is up-and-coming soprano Christie Hageman, a singer in Minnesota Opera's Resident Artist Program since last fall. Hers is a voice worth seeking out, as tonally rich in the higher registers as it is in the lower. No confectionary soprano, she has all the vocal potency of a strong mezzo, armed with enviable control and storytelling sensitivity. In her two big arias, “Signore Ascolte” in the first act and a poignant rendition of “Tu che di gel sei cinta” near the opera's conclusion, Hageman's vocals soar.
Pong, the chief cook - Brad Benoit, Ping, the grand chancellor - Matthew Opitz, Pang, the general purveyor - John Robert Lindsey and Calaf, the unknown prince - Scott Piper in "Turandot" by Minnesota Opera. Photo: Michal Daniel.
Minnesota Opera’s production of “Turandot,” with music by Giacomo Puccini and libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, featuring conductor Michael Christie and stage direction/choreography by Renaud Doucet, is on stage at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts April 13 through 21 (remaining shows on April 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 and 21), 345 Washington St., St. Paul. For more information, visit www.mnopera.org/season/2012-2013/turandot.