“Turandot” is one of Utah Opera’s most highly anticipated productions in recent memory. The opening performance Saturday lived up to the show’s buzz — and then some. Possibly the only way to improve this production would be to shorten the intermissions, because after the thrilling conclusions of the first two acts, 20 minutes seems too long to wait to resume the action.
The production, created by set-costume designer André Barbe and director-choreographer Renaud Doucet, is a known quantity. It has received highly favorable reviews in Pittsburgh, Seattle and Minneapolis, where Utah Opera’s co-commissioning companies have presented it over the past couple of years. But while the director and all the spectacular physical trappings of the production are a package deal, the performers, including the conductor and orchestra, are engaged separately by each opera company. Fortunately for Salt Lake City opera-goers, Christopher McBeth and crew have assembled a first-rate cast. All of the principals sing with impressive amplitude and act with compelling realism.
Soprano Maida Hundeling gives a powerful yet nuanced performance in the title role. This Turandot isn’t just cold and remote. She is terrifying. Her executioner is terrifying, too, as she twirls a pair of swords with menacing panache. Hundeling’s delivery of “In questa reggia,” the aria in which the princess explains why she hates men, will knock you back in your seat. Yet the singer also reveals Turandot’s vulnerability. Her body language in the riddle scene is particularly telling.
Tenor Jonathan Burton portrays Calàf, the mysterious prince who stakes his life on his ability to win Turandot’s love. Burton also sings with power, yet demonstrates restraint and subtlety in the opera’s smash-hit aria, “Nessun dorma.” Unlike many performers who’ve racked up millions of YouTube views with their out-of-context renditions, Burton clearly understands what’s going through the prince’s mind. He also wins the audience’s sympathy as he shows that he cares about Turandot as a woman, not just as a quest.
Soprano Kelly Kaduce is stunning as the noble slave Liù. Every note and gesture is perfect, and Kaduce’s acting makes the torture scene exceptionally harrowing. Daniel Belcher, Julius Ahn and Joseph Gaines offer charming comic relief, with a surprising thread of humanity, as the bureaucrats Ping, Pang and Pong. They also sport some of the production’s most fabulous costumes. Other solid performances come from Richard Wiegold as the exiled king Timur, Todd Miller as Turandot’s father, Shea Owens as the Mandarin and Tyson Miller as the offstage voice of the unfortunate Prince of Persia.
The super-sized Utah Opera Chorus, meticulously prepared by Caleb Harris and insightfully choreographed by Doucet, brings the opera’s many crowd scenes to life; choristers from the Madeleine Choir School, most of them offstage, perform impeccably. Six dancers add to the visual spectacle. Conductor David Agler leads the Utah Symphony in a beautifully detailed and well-balanced performance that always allows the singers to be heard clearly.
It’s part of the “Turandot” mystique that Puccini died before completing the score. (In this production, Doucet and Barbe memorialize the composer in an unexpectedly moving way.) The opera’s final duet, written by Franco Alfano from Puccini’s notes, always feels like a talky, tacked-on coda — even in this strong production. If anything, the smart acting and directing choices that have been made throughout the opera render that last scene superfluous, because Turandot and Calàf are already a believable and sympathetic couple. But don’t let that keep you away from this production. “Turandot” is the must-see of the season.
P Utah Opera presents Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot.” The opera is sung in Italian, with supertitles in English.
When • Reviewed Saturday; performances continue tonight, Wednesday and Friday at 7:30, with a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday.
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City.
Tickets • $18 to $95 ($5 more on performance day; $15 rush tickets available on performance day for patrons 30 and younger) at www.utahopera.org.
Running time • 2 hours and 45 minutes, including two intermissions
In a nutshell • A princess decrees death for all suitors who fail to solve her riddles. Can a mysterious prince, singing one of the most popular arias of all time, melt her icy heart?
Learn more • Utah Opera principal coach Carol Anderson will give a lecture at the back of the theater an hour before curtain, and artistic director Christopher McBeth will do a Q&A at the front of the theater after each performance. Additionally, Susan Neimoyer, an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Utah, has posted background information at www.utahopera.org/onlinelearning.
And • As part of Utah Symphony | Utah Opera’s Silk & Spices cultural festival, the Wednesday performance will be preceded by a southern Chinese dinner at Hong Kong Tea House, 565 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City. Tickets, which do not include alcohol or opera admission, are $30 at 801-533-NOTE. Visit www.utahopera.org/festival for more information.