Why in the world would anyone even want to try to win Princess Turandot’s hand in marriage, since failure to answer her three-question test means the suitor’s head will roll. Still, many step forward and fail, until Prince Calaf enters her realm in legendary China.
Traveling incognito as the son of a dethroned king, Calaf falls in love with Turandot at first sight. Much to her dismay, he answers her questions correctly. Seeing her distress, he offers his own challenge: If she can learn his name by sunrise, he will march willingly to his death.
It’s a gruesome premise for Giacomo Puccini’s final operatic work, unfinished at his death in 1924. The grandiose production, featuring about 70 cast members, is coming to the Paramount Theatre on Jan. 19 and 21 to launch the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre’s 20th anniversary season.
“It’s big and beautiful and rich in experience,” said Daniel Kleinknecht, the opera theater’s founder and conductor. “It’s the maximum Puccini. It is his last piece — he didn’t quite finish it but he sketched the ending, so he wrote all but the last several minutes.”
Franco Alfano completed the score, and “Turandot” — the daughter of Turan — debuted at La Scala in Milan, Italy, in 1926, under Arturo Toscanini’s baton.
“It is everything that Puccini learned about composition, technique (and) what worked on the stage for him in pieces like ‘(Madama) Butterfly,’ ‘La Boheme,’ ‘Tosca,’ ‘Gianni Schicchi.’ He was quite masterful, and all of that comes together in this piece,” Kleinknecht said.
“The choral writing is brilliant and the vocal writing is as sensuous as any Puccini. He knew how to pace scenes and acts. He knew how to grab the emotions of the audience by his compositional ideas. It’s just a brilliant piece. It’s both intimate and carefully orchestrated. ... The choral scenes are for the full orchestra, the Turandot and Calaf pieces are more hefty, and the orchestra colors are brilliant,” he said, and will be performed by Orchestra Iowa.
“Turandot” holds coveted lead roles for soprano Rebecca Nash and tenor Ta’u Pupu’a, world-traveling opera professionals based in New York City. Nash plays the title role and Pupu’a, returning to the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre after starring in last season’s “Cavalleria rusticana” and “Pagliacci,” plays Turandot’s most formidable suitor.
Both artists dazzled the masses at Brucemorchestra X last summer — Nash with an aria from “Tosca” and Pupu’a with Calaf’s instantly-recognizable aria, “Nessun dorma,” from “Turandot.”
“They’re very assured singers, they’re very confident,” Kleinknecht said. “These are two voices that match one another in color and brilliance. They will sound wonderful together and look wonderful together. It’s a really special pairing between the two.”
They also understand the reason behind Turandot’s seemingly bloodthirsty death decrees. The princess couldn’t marry just anyone — she had to find someone up to the task and to her station in life, they said.
Preparing for the formidable role gave Nash an excuse to watch “The Crown,” the Netflix hit show about Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, from marriage to monarch.
“Although you might not initially see very many similarities between Elizabeth the Second and Turandot — obviously Elizabeth the Second sees her reign and her royalty position as a position of service, which is not the way Turandot sees hers,” said Nash, a native of Australia, where Queen Elizabeth is the sovereign. “But there is a burden of responsibility that comes with being royalty and that comes with power. In order to understand why (Turandot) behaves the way she does, I think it’s important to understand what power means to her and what the responsibility of that power is in her mind.”
Also, with ancient princesses, as well as some modern rulers like the Emperor of Japan, their subjects see them as “almost godlike,” Nash said, “and so they have this separation from humanity because of their positions. ... They’re born into this idea that they are somehow unearthly different. So every decision that she makes is bearing all of that in mind — the responsibility of power, the fact that she’s different, that somehow there’s a reason for her god-given separation from the rest of humanity.”
Turandot also is determined to rise above those who would bully or brutalize her, as she had seen happen to others. Her mind-set becomes “‘This is who I am. This is my power and this is my responsibility, and anybody who wants to be involved will come into my circle to me,’” Nash said.
Pupu’a believes Calaf is not only attracted to Turandot’s beauty, but to her power, as well. He also needs to find someone who can match his strength, and when he learns of Turandot’s three riddles, knows he is equal to the task.
“He’s like, ‘Oh I got you. I’m going to have you. You’re going to be the mother of my children,’” Pupu’a said. “I think also he wants to crack and find out her vulnerability, what makes her so hard.”
Pupu’a, an NFL defensive end for the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Ravens in the mid-1990s, finds a kindred spirit with Calaf through the passionate “Nessun dorma (None shall sleep).”
“So many great tenors in the past have sung it and have brought it to the world. Pavarotti made it very famous,” Pupu’a said. “I enjoy that aria not only because of the lyrics and the music, but also what it stands for: If you want something in life, to go after it and don’t let anyone stand in your way, which is what I’ve done after football. I got injured and decided to be an opera singer so I moved to New York.”
Even though he said he’s sung “Nessun dorma” many times in concert, singing it within the context of the show is very different, requiring the performer to dig inside to find commonality through life experience.
“I believe that once you’re on stage, and you’re truthful about your character and you bring some of your past into your character, the audience feels it,” he said. “You send out that love, and then in return, they give you the love.”
WHAT: Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre presents “Turandot”
WHERE: Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 19 and 2 p.m. Jan. 21
TICKETS: $19 to $69, Paramount Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or Paramounttheatrecr.com; for $10 student tickets or group pricing, call (319) 366-8203