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The Washington National Opera’s Ending for Puccini’s Turandot Shines with a Multinational Cast at The Kennedy Center

The Washington National Opera’s Ending for Puccini’s Turandot Shines with a Multinational Cast at The Kennedy Center

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Jordan Wright
May 15, 2024

Ewa Płonka (Photo/Cory Weaver)

Turandot, the Washington National Opera’s final production for this season, opened on its glittering ‘Gala Night’. For those of you who despair of theatregoers sporting jeans and backpacks, this would have been your night to shine. Elegantly gowned, bejeweled and tuxedoed were the opera aficionados who transported us back to the halcyon days when Jacqueline Kennedy envisioned the nation’s most prestigious cultural center beside the Potomac River and audiences arrived in all their splendor.

This production presented us with an exciting new ending for this iconic Puccini opera, written yet unfinished before his untimely death. It has been 100 years since his demise and a collaboration between WNO General Director, Timothy O’Leary and WNO Artistic Director, Francesca Zambello, selected a lyricist and composer to replace the ending that had been written by Franco Alfano 100 years ago. That premiere was in 1926 at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan under the baton of the great Toscanini.

Yonghoon Lee (Calaf) Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha (Liù) (Photo/Cory Weaver)

This new ending was written by playwright/screenwriter Susan Soon He Stanton (HBO’s Succession) along with composer Christopher Tin (two-time Grammy winner of concert and media music) who amplified the score creating the final twenty minutes of new music and employing the “axe motif” – a series of five chords that sound like the executioner’s axe falling on Turandot’s suitor and that reoccurs throughout the opera.

This massive production has been an enormous undertaking with an ensemble consisting of 60 adults, 20 youth, 10 dancers, 10 supernumeraries, 73 musicians, 14 banda, two conductors, 40 stagehands, seven in wig and makeup – 275 plus staff backstage. The cast itself is multinational.

A brief synopsis of the story features Turandot, a bloodthirsty Chinese princess, whose ancestor was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a stranger. This becomes the raison d’être for her murderous campaign to challenge each of her suitors to answer three questions correctly in order to win her hand. (One wonders if she doesn’t change the answers to suit her desires.) In any case, if they do not answer satisfactorily, it’s off with their heads. A three-story guillotine is brought onstage to emphasize her barbaric desires.

Scene from WNO Turandot (Photo/Cory Weaver)

After a number of suitors are summarily dispatched for their inaccurate responses, along comes Prince Calaf, a reckless youth who is determined against all odds and pleadings from his father, the exiled king Timur, Liù the sweet slave girl who secretly loves him, and the three ministers to give up his quest. But, oh no, our man Calaf ignores all warnings as he is guided only by his desire to win the hand of Turandot. As a story aiming to reflect a more modern China, Set Designer Wilson Chin, gives us a look straight out of Germany’s Brutalist architecture with three floors of metal scaffolding where the refugees and abandoned retinues watch the hideous acts unfold.

Polish soprano Ewa Plonka conjures Turandot’s evil intentions belting out her ferocity like a fire-breathing dragon in a multi-layered performance against the softer-voiced tenor Yonghoon Lee as the feckless young Calaf. Yet it’s the passionately ardent Liù performed by soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha’s in her richly transcendent mellifluous voice, that provide the beauty amid the horror.  The three ministers, formerly known as Ping, Pang and Pong, have been appropriately renamed as Majordomo (Ethan Vincent), Majordomo (Sahel Salam), and Head Chef Jonathan Pierce Rhodes). Emperor Altoum is Turandot’s father and is played by Neil  ShicoffPeixin Chen plays Timur, Calaf’s father. You will be comforted by the Disneyesque happy ending as Turandot comes to her senses and Calaf wins her heart, although after enduring the horrors of Turandot’s reign, the denouement is a hard pill to swallow.

Neil Shicoff (Emperor Altoum) (Photo/Cory Weaver)

Directed by Francesca Zambello, the evening’s performance, a co-production with the WNO, Opèra de Montrèal and Dallas Opera, was dedicated to Washington’s own visionary philanthropist, David M. Rubenstein, who after a fourteen-year leadership leaves an inspiring legacy on the future of the WNO.

With the WNO’s Opera Chorus, Children’s Chorus and Corps Dancers, it also stars Le Bu as Mandarin and soprano Margorie Owens as an alternate in the role of Turandot and tenor Jonathan Burton as an alternate in the role of Calaf.

Speranza Scappucci and Aaron Breid conduct; Choreographer Kanji Segawa; Costume Designer Linda Cho; Lighting Designer Amith Chandrashaker; Projection Designer S. Katy Tucker; Dramaturg Kelley Rourke, and Associate Director Anna Maria Bruzzese.

A triumph for this marvelous cast and creative team.

Ewa Płonka (Turandot) and Yonghoon Lee (Calaf) (Photo/Cory Weaver)

Through May 25 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20566. For tickets and information call the box office at 202 467-4600 or visit

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