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Love and death by fire and ice: Opera Carolina’s production of ‘Turandot’

Whether or not Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot” is the last great Italian opera is debatable, but nothing since has come close to its popularity.

Othalie Graham plays the title role in Opera Carolina’s presentation of Puccini’s most sumptuous, sensual and sinister score on Jan. 24, 29 and Feb. 1.

“Turandot” is the tale of a fabled ice princess, daughter of the emperor of China, the most beautiful woman in the land, who poses three riddles to all her suitors, and who beheads all those who fail to answer them.

This continues, to the grim amusement of the populace, until an unknown prince (Calaf) bests her, to her dismay. Confidant that he can win her love, he tells her that he will renounce her if Turandot can discover his name by the break of day, but – though Turandot unleashes the secret police and instruments of torture to pry out his secret – she fails, and at the climax awakens into love.

What amazes is how Puccini elevates this threadbare plot into a heightened reality. The orchestra creates a sulfurous atmosphere with xylophones glittering like snake scales and thunderous gongs.

The voices float Puccini’s lushest melodies; the chorus becomes a living character.

Puccini (1858-1924), who knew he was dying, put the best of himself into it, but the race against time was lost.

Lost, too, was the love duet rivaling that of “Tristan und Isolde” with which he hoped to end the opera. He died at midpoint in Act 3. Toscanini stopped here, in tribute to Puccini when conducting the premiere, despite the conclusion composer Alfano had cobbled together.

Opera Carolina last presented “Turandot” in 2008 and has assembled a starry cast for this production.

Othalie Graham has made herself synonymous with the part of Turandot, with 11 productions with 11 companies. Opera Carolina makes it 12, 13 if one counts a concert in Mexico. Graham is staking her career on the statuesque, oracular soprano roles, such as Isolde. She has the mettle for it, as her Aida last year with Opera Carolina proved.

Dina Kuznetsova, who was a memorable Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugen Onegin” with Opera Carolina a few years ago, will play the pivotal role of Liu, the devoted servant girl of Calaf. Kutzenova is another emerging star, who can be counted on to bring insight to her parts.

Carl Tanner is replacing an ailing Marcello Giordani as Calaf. Local operagoers will remember his performance in 2010 in the title role in Verdi’s “Otello.” Tanner made every stage of Otello’s deterioration plausible, from triumph to murderous delusion.

Tanner’s background is unusual for an opera singer – he was a bounty hunter before his operatic career took off. Actor Michael Keaton is developing a film comedy about this chapter of Tanner’s life. The plan is to end it with Calaf’s big aria, “Nessun Dorma,” which makes sense, because Tanner has played Calaf 97 times.

One feels Tanner is only partially kidding when he says, “Puccini should have titled ‘Turandot’ ‘Calaf’ or even ‘Liu’ because those parts are really much more extensive than Turandot’s – she only starts singing in the second act, while the tenor has to hit high B flats and Cs right from the start.”

About the controversial ending, Tanner says, “I don’t think that Alfano was that far off with the ending. It works, and it is what people expect. But I do think that Puccini would have been kinder to the singers.”

Every great work of art has its mystery, and “Turandot” is no exception. The mystery is how a dying man could write such an accolade to the power of love.

“Turandot” seems to demonstrate this power, even if it is unable to explain it.

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