Nessun dorma! Nessun dorma!
Tu pure, o, Principessa, nella tua fredda stanza,
guardi le stelle che tremano d’amore e di speranza.
Ma il mio mistero è chiuso in me,
il nome mio nessun saprà!
No, no, sulla tua bocca lo dirò quando la luce splenderà!
Ed il mio bacio scioglierà il silenzio che ti fa mia!
(Il nome suo nessun saprà!… e noi dovrem, ahime, morir!)
Dilegua, o notte! Tramontate, stelle! Tramontate, stelle!
All’alba vincerò! Vincerò! Vincerò!

SFO Program Cover (original Turandot artwork)

Turandot, by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), is best known for “Nessun Dorma” (“No One Shall Sleep”), one of the most famous tenor arias in the history of opera, achieving pop status after its performance by Luciano Pavarotti at the opening of the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy and then again in 2007 when future YouTube sensation Paul Potts sang it for his Britain’s Got Talent audition. Therefore, although the opera is less commonly performed than Puccini’s other masterworks (La Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly), this one part is extremely well known. So much so that, on Tuesday night, you could hear whispers throughout the hall as people recognized the opening notes. Unfortunately, confirming what I read when this production was first reviewed, Marco Berti, the tenor who played Calaf, cuts off that last glorious note—I don’t know why, because he otherwise sang quite beautifully and seemed to have the requisite power to really nail it.

Photo by Cory Weaver.

However, while that one bit was therefore somewhat disappointing, one of the things I really like about this opera is that it is fairly balanced and provides many moments for the cast to shine, with a key aria sung by a different character in each act. Even the chorus, which plays a larger role here than in most operas I’ve seen, has a number of standout moments, particularly when they egg on the executioner in Act I.

Because, unlike Puccini other successes, which are very much grounded in a modern reality, Turandot is pure, dark fairy tale. Princess Turandot, influenced by the sufferings of a royal ancestor, has turned against all men and is determined that no one shall ever possess her. Any prince seeking to marry her must first answer three riddles; if he fails, he is executed. Upon viewing the princess, Calaf instantly falls for her and strikes the fatal gong announcing his candidacy.

Bang a gong. Get it on. Calaf with Ping, Pang, Pong.
Photo by Cory Weaver.

Naturally, he answers all three riddles (“What is born each night and dies each dawn?” “Hope.” “What flickers red and warm like a flame, yet is not fire?” “Blood.” “What is like ice but burns?” “Turandot!”). But, despite this success, the princess begs her father not to honor the challenge. Calaf, hoping to win her love, offers Turandot a challenge of his own: if she can learn his name by dawn, he will forfeit his life. And that brings us back to “Nessun Dorma.”

Although Berti delivered a fine Calaf, and Iréne Theorin a Turandot who convincingly moves from ice queen to vulnerable lover, it’s safe to say that Adler Fellow Leah Crocetto stole the show as Liù, the servant girl who makes the ultimate sacrifice out of her love for Calaf. Her “Signore, ascolta!” in Act I earned one of the few moments of spontaneous applause of the night. Of course, this didn’t help the often-pointed-out flaw in this opera, which is that Turandot is not a particularly sympathetic heroine and that it’s hard not to root for Liù. However, Theorin’s strong performance in the third act, along with her excellent costumes, which helped convey her difficult transition, mostly allowed the opera to recover from this plot handicap.

Adler Fellow Leah Crocetto killing it as Liù.
Photo by Cory Weaver.

Sadly, I didn’t love most of the costumes as much as Turandot’s. Some of them looked quite dated and cheap (Ping, Pang, Pong, I’m looking at you), others just seemed ridiculous. Timur looked like Gandalf in a bad production of Lord of the Rings and the chorus at the end resembled Violet Beauregard (post-blueberrification) in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. That was a shame because the chorus looked great in the first act.

Gandalf? Dumbledore? Why no, it’s Timur, the deposed Tartar king!
Photo by Cory Weaver.
I plan to keep my eye on Adler Fellow Ryan Kuster, here in his SFO debut.
Photo by Cory Weaver.

But, really, these are minor quibbles, I thoroughly enjoyed this production.