Atlanta Opera takes on major production with Puccini’s ‘Turandot’

Big cast. Big sets. Big songs. Big emotions. If you're ever tasked with trying to come up with the most quintessentially operatic of all operas, Giacomo Puccini's "Turandot" would be pretty hard to beat. It has all of the bases, especially the big ones, well covered.

A 2007 production was the first opera to be performed at the then-newly opened Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, and now, 10 years later, a new production will close out the Atlanta Opera’s 2016-17 mainstage season at the same venue from April 29 to May 7. The latest production of “Turandot” will be one of the largest shows in the Atlanta Opera’s history with a cast and crew of over 200 people, including the principal cast, an adult chorus of 60, a children’s chorus, dancers, supernumeraries, orchestra and stage crew.

"Puccini has always been one of my favorite composers since I knew anything about opera," says Seattle-based soprano Marcy Stonikas, who will play the title role of Turandot. Stonikas will be making her Atlanta Opera debut, but this will be her fourth time performing the role itself. "I never tire of singing it and hearing it. It's definitely a dream role and a dream opera."

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Puccini’s final opera tells the story of the beautiful but cold Princess Turandot, who has vowed she will not marry unless a suitor can, under penalty of death for failure, solve her three riddles. A deposed prince from a neighboring kingdom, Calaf, falls in love with Turandot at first sight, and he enters into the contest to win her hand in marriage, although he has always been secretly loved by the faithful servant girl Liù.

“Traditionally, Turandot has been thought of as this sinister ice princess, like a black widow spider,” Stonikas says. “I’ve found the most challenging aspect of the role was trying to figure out how to make her three-dimensional, how to make her sympathetic. It’s really difficult if you play Turandot as this icy, cold, evil-seeming character and then in the third act she’s suddenly sympathetic. … We try to frame it differently, really making it clear that the symbol Turandot projects as a ruler is not the same as the person she actually is.”

Roman tenor Gianluca Terranova, who performed as Rodolfo in Atlanta in last season's "La Bohème," will make his role debut as Calaf with the Atlanta Opera. Though Terranova has played numerous other roles worldwide, he says it was important to wait until the right time to take the big step of performing the challenging role of Calaf.

“If you push to enlarge your voice too early, you’ll lose your voice in five years,” he says. “I needed time so I sung a lot of ‘Rigoletto,’ a lot of ‘Traviata.’ Now I’m starting to do a lot of dramatic repertoire like ‘Don Carlo,’ ‘Simon Boccanegra,’ ‘Aida.’ It’s a moment to change. I have a lot of debuts, a lot of new roles, a lot of new characters. Calaf is one of the biggest.”

Calaf, he says, is a challenging role because it’s a lengthy performance that requires an unusual amount of endurance, acting chops and technical skill. Late in the opera, the tenor also sings what has become one of Puccini’s most famous arias, perhaps the most famous aria in all of opera, “Nessun Dorma,” in which Calaf sings of his resolve to win the princess’s hand in marriage.

“The famous aria ‘Nessun Dorma,’ you must sing when you are tired,” Terranova says. “You need power to sing. It’s a challenge. … And we have Pavarotti. We have Domingo. We have a lot of big tenors in our minds singing this aria. But it’s not a problem for me. I am Italian. I know the style. The problem is the whole character, not just the aria. It’s a very hard challenge to act Calaf. There are a lot of moments that are even harder than the aria.”

Though most of the principal cast, like Terranova, will be coming from points distant to perform in the production, Calaf's father, Timur, won't have far to commute. Peachtree City resident and bass Steven Humes, who travels frequently for his work, says he's glad for the opportunity to stay at home for a change and perform the small part, a role that he also played in the Atlanta Opera's 2007 production before he'd relocated to the city.

“One of the most important things for an opera singer is to be able to travel anywhere in the world,” he says. “Atlanta is a really convenient place to live as far as that’s concerned. It’s also a really vibrant place to live, and there are a lot more opera singers living here: Jamie Barton, Morris Robinson, Larry Brownlee and probably more I don’t know of. Many people are finding it a good choice.”

For all of the cast and crew, and for whoever approaches “Turandot,” one of its enduring challenges is its ending. “Turandot” was Puccini’s final opera, and he famously didn’t finish. On opening night at La Scala in 1926, one year after Puccini’s death, the conductor Arturo Toscanini laid down his baton in the middle of Act 3 and reportedly announced, “Here the opera ends, because at this point the maestro died.”

Since then, the opera has been most frequently performed with an ending by composer Franco Alfano based on musical sketches and notes left by Puccini. "Maybe I'm crazy to say this, but I think maybe Puccini didn't finish, not because he died, but because he didn't know how," says Terranova, pointing out that the dilemma of the opera's central love triangle may have simply been insoluble as the maestro approached the end of his life. "After Liù died, he went into crisis. The finale was an effort. It's a strange finale."

Strange finale or not, the ending hasn’t prevented the opera from becoming one of the most popular and enduring classics in the repertoire, and cast and crew say that they hope Atlanta audiences will fall once again for “Turandot.”


OPERA PREVIEW

Atlanta Opera’s “Turandot”

$45-$151. 8 p.m. April 29; 7:30 p.m. May 2; 8 p.m. May 5; 3 p.m. May 7. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-881-8885, www.atlantaopera.org.