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Turandot Captures Tragedy with Balletic Passion

By Jordan Wright

Turandot and her father, the mandarin.

Turandot and her father, the mandarin.

Maija Kovalevska made her Kennedy Center debut as the slave-girl, Liu, in this season’s Turandot and the role will never be the same. Her portrayal of the sympathetic Liu was nothing less than transcendent.

With a voice that renders music “noteless,” pours forth pure and effortless in its transitions, and a physical presence that captures her tragedy with balletic passion, Kovalevska owned every moment that she was on stage.

This “Lily of Latvia” challenges all who have ever sung the role and those who have yet to.

Like Alexander Pope’s sylph, full of spleen and vanity, Sylvie Valayre, as the bloodthirsty Princess Turandot, stalks the stage seeking revenge and becomes the very thing that she despises, cruel and loveless. Unfortunately, Valayre’s performance was neither sympathetic nor nuanced, so that when at last she is revealed by Calaf’s kiss to be a frightened girl, we are stymied by the sudden shift.

Dario Volente gave the vainglorious Calaf his all, but it was not enough to bolster the Persian prince. His Calaf was competent but devoid of heft, his stultifying voice following the libretto as notes on a page.

A very bright note was the brilliant set design by Sally Jacobs that reminds one of Canton Famille Rose porcelain, with its delicate depictions of Chinese life.

When Ping, Pang and Pong, fearing Calaf will fail the test of the three riddles, and hoping to flee their awful fate, wax nostalgic with homesickness, Jacobs employs a hand-painted bolt of silk fabric depicting scenic landscapes. This billowing panel unfolds behind them and travels across the stage like Christo’s “Running Fence”, quickly transforming the set to accommodate the music.

Her slate grey backdrop of a Chinese palace serves to further enhance the bright costumes and Kabuki-style masks in this amalgam of Asian culture that Puccini imagined.

Well-received too, was conductor, Keri-Lynn Watson, making her Washington National Opera debut with this production, which closed June 4.

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