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Monday, September 19, 2011

Young Soprano Shines in SF Opera's Masterful Production of Puccini's Turandot

Posted By on Mon, Sep 19, 2011 at 9:30 AM

Leah Crocetto as Liù in Turandot - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Leah Crocetto as Liù in Turandot

Turandot, by Giacomo Puccini

@ War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness

Sept. 17, 2011

After the half-baked Heart of a Soldier, Saturday night's performance of Turandot at SF Opera felt as reassuring as waking up to the realization that not only are you not being pursued by angry gerbils, but it's also the weekend and someone is making pancakes. Turandot succeeds as resoundingly as Soldier fails, and it throws in a rare treat -- a star-making performance by young soprano Leah Crocetto.

It doesn't hurt that Crocetto's Liù is the most sympathetic of the three major roles -- Princess Turandot is a vengeful harridan with severe trust issues, and her suitor Calaf greatly benefits from modern audiences' Disney-induced tendency to root for lovesick, personality-deficient princes. What's worse, Liù sacrifices herself so that this undeserving pair can have their happily-ever-after. Crocetto, who's performed several smaller roles with the company during her training as an Adler Fellow, drew applause after her beautifully nuanced first aria and capitalized on every subsequent appearance. Though it would have been easy for this character to flirt with bathos, Crocetto conveyed Liù's vulnerability -- and strength -- without blatantly yanking the audience's heartstrings.

Iréne Theorin as Turandot - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Iréne Theorin as Turandot

Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin lived up to her billing as "the world's reigning Turandot," infusing her SF Opera debut with fire and ice (perhaps the Revlon perfume was inspired by the libretto's standard description of the title character). Theorin's powerhouse voice and commanding stage presence seemed custom-made for the role of the imperious Chinese princess, particularly in this production -- Ian Falconer's lavish costumes might wear a less formidable performer. The sheer gorgeousness of Italian tenor Marco Berti's voice almost redeemed his negligible acting, most of which was delegated to his left arm -- though when his Calaf was seized by particularly intense emotions, Berti sometimes gesticulated with his right arm as well.

Greg Fedderly (Pang), Hyun Yun (Ping), and Daniel Montenegro (Pong) - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Greg Fedderly (Pang), Hyun Yun (Ping), and Daniel Montenegro (Pong)

Among the supporting roles, Raymond Aceto gave a compelling performance as Timur, Liù's aged master and Calaf's long-lost father. Hyung Yun, Greg Fedderly, and Daniel Montenegro were amusing enough as the clownish bureaucrats Ping, Pang, and Pong, though their extended antics and iffy ensemble singing wore thin in the first scene of the second act. Under the seemingly infallible direction of Ian Robertson, the Opera Chorus handled its epic scenes with verve and precision. Musical director Nicola Luisotti was clearly in his element as he led the orchestra through a passionate, fluent interpretation of Puccini's score.

In its opulence and its stylized exoticism, David Hockney's production affords a spectacle on par with last fall's Aida. If the stunning red-and-green sets show a few dings here and there (the sets have more miles on them than Marco Polo's horse), these only testify to the production's immense popularity -- the staging still feels fresh and vivid. Add a superb cast and Luisotti's expertise with Puccini, and it's no wonder that this Turandot was chosen to anchor SF Opera's fall season.

Critic's Notebook

Personal bias: If Calaf indeed represents the most intellectually astute of Turandot's suitors, the princess' off-with-his-head approach to winnowing the dating pool seems much more reasonable. One imagines that Amy Chua would approve.

Random detail: Theorin's Medusa-like headdress was only the second-best sparkly accessory in the house -- first place went to the small girl with the pink-sequined Hello Kitty purse.

By the way: This cast appears in performances through Oct. 4; a second cast handles the November dates -- Theorin and Berti depart, but Crocetto stays. Sung in Italian, with English supertitles.

SF Opera's Turandot continues through Nov. 25 at the War Memorial Opera House. Admission is $21-$389. The Sept. 25 performance will be simulcast at AT&T Park; admission to the stadium is free.

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Emily Hilligoss

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