Review: TURANDOT performed by Washington National Opera at Kennedy Center

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Incredibly rich in detail –from staging to technical aspects– and emboldened with Puccini’s soaring music and meticulous, intelligent direction by Francesca Zambello, Washington National Opera’s production of Turandot is a production for the ages. The entire creative team, the cast, the Washington National Opera Orchestra, the Washington National Opera Chorus, the Washington National Opera Children’s chorus and the Washington National Opera Corps Dancers have given us a Turandot that respects the glorious bones of this beloved Italian opera while adding a new ending that gives the opera a more mature and modern appeal.

This new production is aided in its original libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni with the addition of librettist Susan Soon He Stanton’s new World Premiere ending which adds agency to the titled heroine. This new World Premiere also adds the enticing music of composer Christopher Tin to the finale of this production—so we have the ravishingly soaring music of the revered composer Giacomo Puccini as well as the contributions of this refreshing modern composer.

This World Premiere production is abundant with auditory and visual riches from the staging to the technical design and, especially, to emboldened thematic interpretation. Director Francesca Zambello has obviously respected this beloved artistic work while adding highly insightful psychological penetration to all the thematic aspects of the opera. Reverberating thematic undercurrents and dualities course through this opera —–often soaked in blazing reds and vivid imagery that convey themes of repression and empowerment, the sacred and the earthly, brutality and mercy and the battle between death and the life force itself.

Director Zambello’s vision (aided by her creative team) effectively merges and contrasts more isolated poetic scenes with savvy logistical utilization of the large ensemble onstage throughout the swirling and soaring music of Pucccini and Tin—which is as variegated and enthralling as the libretto’s moods demand. Conductor Speranza Scappucci conducts with a confidence and polish that is rewarded with thrilling orchestral professionalism from the Washington National Opera Orchestra.

Zambello draws out the pathos, poetry, and the dark, dry wit of every inch of the opera and lends just enough modernity to the piece to enrich it without totally deconstructing it. Zambello’s direction of the large, panoramic crowd scenes are magnificent as she conveys the tyranny of brutal forces forcing repression on the powerless. (Images of the French Revolution and Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution were prevalent in my consciousness as the blade of the guillotine and the weapons of killing were pushing the crowds of people back). Costume Designer Linda Cho uses earth tones to convey this misery while using subtly more tailored designs and richer colors for some of the individual leading characters.

Set Designer Wilson Chin’s expansive yet logistically effective set design is replete with scaffolding, multi-tiers and grid-like structures that show the masses of the dispossessed clamoring and witnessing the events arising from this enigmatic and unique opera. Set against this stark reality are beautiful images rising and descending in the background– to show contrast from development in the libretto and in the opening up of the transition into a hopefully more open and democratic world: petals of flowers fall, the moon glows, the sun rises and the world of brutality explodes like a fiery furnace of blazing obliteration that will give birth to a new order of life. (Projection Designer S. Katy Tucker’s expertise helped to implement this visionary set design).

Co-choreographers Jessica Lang and Kanji Segawa excelled in conveying stage movement especially in the marching of fascist-like Red Guards, the crushing of crowds and a balletic-like pageantry of various groupings in the opera’s ensemble.

Of course, the final scenes benefit from the new ending –as the unique, enigmatic, and iconic character of Turandot (soprano Ewa Plonka), her suitor Calaf (Tenor Yonghoon Lee) and the brutal tyranny that has enveloped the entire populace—soon transition into a new transformation to a more open democratic society.

Soprano Ewa Plonka is the epitome of icy disdain and demeanor as the prideful and iconic heroine. The depth and vocal control of Ms. Plonka’s soprano was enticing, and she exhibited a marvelous command of the character’s haughty and defiant streak. Ms. Plonka’s expressive soprano was at its most moving as she sang of the memory of the misery of her ancestral past– and her vow for vengeance and consequent desire to never be possessed by any man. Ms. Plonka brought out all the complexity of her enigmatic character —especially the masochism bordering on cruelty (that I also find evident in Ibsen’s character of Hedda Gabler in the play of the same name). Ms. Plonka’s physical gestures of triumph and defiance often made me think of the defiant Eva Perόn. Ms. Plonka beautifully made the transition from the vengeful authoritarian to a more humane and forgiving figure.

Tenor Yonghoon Lee was a pleasure to hear with his well-developed timbre that shone in his various duets and arias. Mr. Lee’s rendition of “Nessun dorma” drew deserved applause and he possessed a strong yet charming manner that worked well for his vital character. Mr. Lee’s role demands utter stamina as he is onstage for much of the proceedings.

The sensitive and more realistically poetic portrayal of the anguished Liu was drawn with delicate nuance by soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha. Ms. Rangwanasha’s aria “Tu che di gel sei cinta”— (“You who are encircled by ice”) was a veritable feast of spellbinding pathos. Ms. Rangwanasha was certainly a favorite of the evening and drew sustained shouts of acclamation from the audience.

Bass Peixin Chen as the elderly Timur and Tenor Neil Shicoff as Emperor Altoum sang and acted with expressive command and grace as their characters dictated.

This is a rich and extremely rewarding new production and World Premiere of Turandot that will linger long in the memory. It is not to be missed.

Running Time: Two Hours including one 25-minute intermission

Turandot runs May 17, 19, 22, 24, and 25, 2024 at the Kennedy Center located at 2700 F Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20566.

Photo Credit: A scene from Washington National Opera’s production of Turandot.

Photo by Cory Weaver.

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