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Festival Opera: Turandot

Festival Opera

July 11, 14, 17, and 19

When an opera company’s mission is to give young singers, conductors and directors opportunities to explore the repertoire, Puccini is always a good place to start. Throughout its 18 seasons, Festival Opera has scored numerous hits with productions of the composer’s La Bohéme, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Suor Angelica. This month, though, the Walnut Creek-based company aims to climb a slightly higher mountain with Puccini’s Turandot.

Under artistic director Michael Morgan, Festival is staging its first production of Puccini’s final opera. A coproduction with Opera Birmingham, it features Canadian soprano Othalie Graham in the title role and tenor Christopher Jackson as her suitor, Calaf. Soprano Sjöwall appears as Liù, and bass Kirk Eichelberger, a Festival Opera favorite, returns to the company as Timur. Bryan Nies will conduct four performances, July 11-29, at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. David Cox directs.

Turandot, which features a libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, was adapted from Carlo Gozzi’s 1762 play of the same title. Set in ancient Peking, the opera tells the story of a princess who decrees that she will marry the first prince who can solve the three riddles she has devised. If he fails, he must die; many have tried, and all have failed.

Puccini was enthusiastic about the subject, but the opera became the orphan in his family of works; the composer died in 1924 before the score was complete. The young composer Franco Alfano stepped in and, working from Puccini’s sketches, spent six months finishing the score. The opera received its first performance (without Alfano’s ending) on April 25, 1926, at La Scala, with Arturo Toscanini conducting. Noted for arias such as “Nessun Dorma,” the work has been a standard of the repertoire ever since.

It’s a big opera with big requirements, but Morgan says that Festival Opera is ready to take it on.

“We’ve been talking about it for some time,” Morgan explained in a recent interview, “and we’d had Othalie Graham here a few years ago as Tosca. Turandot is a role she’s done a lot, so we knew we could cast it. And of course it’s a favorite with everybody.”

Morgan, who also serves as music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony, allows that the challenges of Turandot are daunting. But he says they’re not insurmountable.

“The challenge for any conductor is that there are so many moving parts,” he says. “The other consideration, for a small company such as Festival Opera, is that the opera rests so heavily on the chorus. Fitting it into our space is also a challenge, but small companies are doing more of that these days: what you lose in terms of the large orchestra, you gain in the audience’s proximity to the singers.”

There’s also the question of the title role. Turandot requires a soprano equipped with a rare combination of lyrical beauty and dramatic weight; Callas, Sutherland, Birgit Nilsson, and Leonie Rysanek were among the 20th century’s leading exponents. When the San Francisco Opera last offered the work, in 2002, it was with the formidable Jane Eaglen at the head of the cast.

“The most important thing about a Turandot,” says Morgan, “is to be able to have enough power to rise above the orchestra, and yet be able to produce the power with beauty. You can make a lot of noise and have it not be particularly beautiful. But to be have that power, the projection, the top, and that beautiful sound is the mark of a great Turandot. It’s a big, demanding part that takes a voice of size and stamina. And that’s what Othalie has.”

Graham launched her career in 2004 at Opera Delaware with the role; the Delaware Courier-Post described her as possessing an “imperious presence and powerful voice.”

Morgan first heard Graham in 2006, when she was singing the title role of Tosca with Sacramento Opera. She auditioned for him, and he cast her in Festival’s production of the opera later the same year. Her performance was widely praised by Bay Area critics; The San Francisco Chronicle noted that she “soared effortlessly through the role.”

Turandot, however, remains Graham’s signature role. She has returned to it with opera companies around the country, including Utah Festival Opera and Michigan Opera Theatre, and reprised it in Boston in May of this year with Chorus Pro Musica.

Morgan describes the new production, which was presented at Opera Birmingham in January of this year, as lavish and traditional. With a large cast and an augmented, 75-member chorus prepared by James Toland, the production represents Festival’s largest undertaking to date.

Morgan, who will conduct and direct the company’s new production of Gounod’s Faust in August, says that one of the rewards of heading the company is working with young artists. When it came time to schedule Turandot, he says he turned the production over to Nies and assistant conductor Joseph Marcheso with complete confidence.

“We’re very happy to be supporting them,” he says. “Bryan and Joseph are also working together at Opera San José. Joseph, who assisted in our Trovatore last year, is doing the Manon that opens the season there, with Bryan assisting him. These two artists are our next generation opera conducting team. So that’s another very forward-looking thing the company is doing.”

Georgia Rowe has been a Bay Area arts writer since 1986. She is Opera News’ chief San Francisco correspondent, and a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice, Musical America, San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, and San Francisco Examiner. Her work has also appeared in Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, and Songlines.