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Turandot deserving of loud cheers on opening night

Susan Tsagkaris, left, portrays Princess Turandot and Karen Chia-Ling Ho is Liu in the St. Petersburg Opera production.
Susan Tsagkaris, left, portrays Princess Turandot and Karen Chia-Ling Ho is Liu in the St. Petersburg Opera production.
Published Jun. 7, 2015

From the first forceful reverberations of a gong, Turandot announces itself as a bold statement.

The St. Petersburg Opera Company set an ambitious tone early during Friday's opening night, an entire village of impoverished peasants on stage, crying out for blood.

The romantic leads in Puccini's final opera soon take over to drive the plot, which interweaves love and brutality, and they do not disappoint. Most of this opera, in which a mysterious suitor bulldozes ahead to win the heart of Princess Turandot, paints romantic love as a bad idea likely to get you killed.

Set in Peking long before that city came to be known as Beijing, Turandot is splashy and grand and has captured audiences in far larger halls than the Palladium. St. Petersburg Opera makes the best of its space, which has no orchestra pit, singers adeptly sharing the stage with musicians.

For this winning production, credit the resourcefulness of stage director Marc Astafan; the delicate command of maestro Mark Sforzini, guiding an orchestra that complements the action but never overwhelms it; and those magnificent voices.

Warren K. Sodt's simple set, a palace in the Forbidden City, suggests the bilateral symmetry of ancient Chinese architecture. The Emperor of Altoum, Turandot's father, played with gravitas by Fred Frabotta, rules from a throne atop the action stage center, a full moon behind him.

The conflict is set in the first act with a royal decree: Turandot is available for marriage to the right prince, but first he must answer three riddles correctly.

Satisfying that test is conveniently complex, since Turandot does not want to marry. The price for any wrong answer is immediate execution.

A subplot, and the vocal introduction of the principals, emerges in step with the first killing. As the mob gleefully rushes to witness the death of some unfortunate prince, the deposed king of Tartary falls and is nearly trampled.

Liu, a slave girl traveling with the elderly king, Timur, rushes to his aid. So too does Calaf, a prince who recognizes Timur as his father. The interplay between Liu, played movingly by Karen Chia-ling Ho, and Calaf, the male lead, signals that this production will be something special.

Casey Finnigan, as Calaf, breaks out a jarringly powerful and ultraclear tenor voice. Ho combines soaring soprano chops with expressively sweet tones, subtlety and feeling. A potential show stealer, she of all the principals inhabits her role most completely.

The other lead, Susan Tsagkaris as Princess Turandot, enters to order the death of the captive suitor, who has failed offstage to answer her cryptic questions.

Seeing her is enough to send Calaf into rapturous heights and Finnigan into full operatic power. His vocal cannon shots hurl over the heads of a packed balcony and bounce off rear walls.

Calaf persists despite warnings from Timur and from Liu, who has poignantly confessed her love for him, as well as Turandot's father and a charming trio of her ministers who provide graceful interludes of comic relief.

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In the end, he defeats her rigged game, answering her subtly worded puzzles correctly.

In one of the questions, for example, she asks, "What flickers warm, like a flame, yet is not fire?"

"Blood," the prince replies.

Tsagkaris, a star in Canada making her U.S. debut, could have done more to exploit the layers of outward imperiousness over an inner vulnerability in Turandot's character. Instead, she plays a tortured soul from the start.

But once she starts singing, it is clear why Tsagkaris was cast in the title role. She is every bit Finnigan's vocal match and is at her best when the two combine for a powerhouse duo in the third act.

That act opens with Calaf performing the Nessun dorma, an enduring aria. A strong chorus reprises that melody in the finale, bringing a cheering and shouting audience immediately to its feet at the satisfying conclusion.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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