The ice queen cometh

Tu­ran­dot’s pro­tag­o­nist re­ally is to die for

Winnipeg Free Press - Section E - - ARTS & LIFE - KEVIN PROKOSH kevin.prokosh@freep­ress.mb.ca

DE­SPITE its sta­tus as a sta­ple of the op­er­atic reper­toire, the fame of Puc­cini’s Tu­ran­dot has been eclipsed by its third-act show­piece, the tenor aria Nes­sun dorma.

The mem­o­rable melody be­came one of the big­gest show­stop­pers in all opera af­ter it be­came the theme song of the 1990 World Cup of soc­cer in Puc­cini’s Ital­ian home­land. The con­cert on the eve of the fi­nal, which fea­tured Lu­ciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Car­reras spar­ring vo­cally on Nes­sun dorma, was seen by more than 800 mil­lion peo­ple. Ever since, it has been opera’s ubiq­ui­tous hit sin­gle.

The haunt­ing ex­cerpt has pro­pelled Tu­ran­dot into regular ro­ta­tion at opera houses around the world, but it is not as beloved.

“The story is quite weird,” says Mlada Khu­do­ley, the Rus­sian-born so­prano per­form­ing the ti­tle role in the Man­i­toba Opera re­vival of Tu­ran­dot, open­ing tonight. “I don’t think I like any­body in this story. Maybe only Liù, be­cause she is cre­ated to at­tract ev­ery­one’s sym­pa­thies.”

Puc­cini’s love-will-con­quer-all story — first per­formed at La Scala in 1926 — fo­cuses on a re­pel­lent ice princess so de­sir­able that scores of men come from all over the world to vie for her hand. De­trac­tors la­bel it bar­barous for the way Tu­ran­dot treats them — she poses three rid­dles and be­heads all who fail to an­swer them. When a smit­ten prince solves the rid­dles, he of­fers his life if she can guess his name be­fore sun­rise the fol­low­ing day.

“It’s a big, honk­ing spec­ta­cle, but flawed be­cause Puc­cini didn’t fin­ish it,” says Cuban-born tenor Raúl Melo, mak­ing his Win­nipeg de­but as Prince Calaf. “It all makes sense to a cer­tain point and sud­denly she changes. The switch be­tween her cru­elty and the very happy end­ing is very abrupt. Ev­ery­one wishes Puc­cini had an­other year of life to fig­ure how to make that trans­for­ma­tion.”

With Tu­ran­dot, Puc­cini’s mas­tery of orches­tral sound reaches its pin­na­cle. It is said the glo­ri­ous arias poured out of Puc­cini as if knew he was about to die.

“The mu­sic of Puc­cini goes first,” says Khu­do­ley, when asked the source of the opera’s en­dur­ing ap­peal. “It’s so pleas­ant to hear. You don’t have to work hard. It just sticks in your brain.”

And first in the score is Nes­sun dorma, for which ev­ery Calif is se­verely judged. Melo will be singing it pro­fes­sion­ally for the third time, but it has been a per­sonal party piece for much longer. The New Yorker once sang it on a dare at a Miami cigar bar and won a nice sto­gie.

“You ei­ther have it or you don’t,” says Melo, dur­ing an in­ter­view in his down­town ho­tel room

He’s re­fer­ring to the spine-tin­gling fi­nal high notes, which are held longer than Puc­cini wrote them in the score.

“So if you can’t do that, you can’t sing the aria now. If you try to sing it as its writ­ten, peo­ple will think, ‘He must have lost his high notes’ or ‘He’s lost his voice.’ We’re mea­sured by one note, ba­si­cally,” Melo says.

Khu­do­ley calls Tu­ran­dot a to­tal fairy tale, in which she por­trays a beauty whose face is lit­er­ally to die for. The vo­cal pow­er­house says it’s not im­por­tant how the per­form­ers on­stage look, but how they well they sing. The grad­u­ate of the Rus­sian Academy of Per­form­ing Arts doesn’t think her cos­tumes — which are the same ones used in the last Man­i­toba Opera pro­duc­tion of

Tu­ran­dot in 1996 — do her any favours. “The dress it­self is beau­ti­ful, but it is not the dress that is show­ing off my best traits of my fig­ure,” she says. “I’m just like a hanger car­ry­ing this dress around. The dress is a big robe.”

Melo says that cast­ing based on at­trac­tive­ness would se­verely re­strict the pool of can­di­dates, as there are few 100-pound so­pra­nos who have the voice and stamina to pull off a char­ac­ter like Tu­ran­dot. He ac­knowl­edges that he might be a few years older than Calif is sup­posed to be.

“I’m less young than she is beau­ti­ful,” says Melo gal­lantly. “Her dress makes her look a lot chub­bier than she ac­tu­ally is.

“Looks are im­por­tant, but re­mem­ber: it is fan­tasy time.”

Khu­do­ley says if you don’t rec­og­nize from her play­ing Salome for the Man­i­toba Opera in 2011, check out her pho­tos on the In­ter­net.

“I would say only one thing: I’m am not re­spon­si­ble for that. Let my au­di­ence find me on Google and see how I am look­ing like in my com­mon life,” says the singer who lives near Min­neapo­lis with her Amer­i­can hus­band and daugh­ter.

Melo sug­gests the pen­du­lum in con­tem­po­rary opera has swung too far, to where per­form­ers are cast for their phys­i­cal ap­peal rather than their vo­cal at­trac­tive­ness.

“There are ac­tu­ally some medi­ocre singers at the very high­est lev­els be­cause they look good. I’m not go­ing to men­tion any names.”

MIKE DEAL / WIN­NIPEG FREE PRESS

So­prano Mlada Khu­do­ley, right, as Tu­ran­dot and tenor Raúl Melo (left and be­low left) as Prince Calaf.

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