Review: 'Turandot' creates exhilarating milestone for Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre

Rob Merritt

Set in legendary China, “Turandot” features resplendent costumes and props in scenes of celebration.
Rob Merritt Set in legendary China, “Turandot” features resplendent costumes and props in scenes of celebration.

CEDAR RAPIDS — “Turandot,” Puccini’s final opera, is magnificent from its gruesome beginning to its triumphant ending — a monumental way to celebrate the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre’s 20th season.

This is a masterpiece of casting, costuming, makeup, lighting, scenery, movement and direction, with stellar musicianship onstage and from Orchestra Iowa under the baton of Opera Theatre founder Daniel Kleinknecht. The production — an unimaginable love story set in legendary China — opened to wild cheers and an instant standing ovation Friday night at the Paramount Theatre, and repeats there Sunday afternoon. Do not miss it.

Cedar Rapids’ revered soprano Karla Goettel, who was in the audience opening night, deemed the production “a historic event for the Paramount Theatre,” calling Rebecca Nash in the title role “the best soprano” she’s ever heard on that stage.

The power of Princess Turandot’s pain sears your soul through Nash’s electrifying interpretation. The Melbourne, Australia, native infuses the daughter of China’s emperor with an icy regality masking an inner turmoil festering from the tales of torture her ancestor bore at the hands of a cruel husband.

Determined never to marry and suffer the same fate, the beautiful princess devises a test for would-be suitors: answer her three impossible riddles correctly or fall to the executioner’s ax. So far, 26 men have died trying to win her hand, and another surely will follow when a stranger who strides into the city takes up the challenge.

It’s a challenge not only for the smitten suitor, but for the actor who must prove to be Nash’s equal. Ta’u Pupu’a of New York — by way of Tonga and Utah — is every inch her match in bearing and voice. Prior to Pupu’a’s 2017 performance with the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre, Kleinknecht called the former NFL player turned Juilliard graduate “a great tenor with a huge instrument,” adding that “he might be the largest-voiced person I’ve ever heard in my entire life.”

Together, the stars ignite the stage.

The depth of Turandot’s anguish is staggering as the stranger solves each riddle. She is utterly shattered at his victory and decries the sacred oath that requires her to now marry him. But her father won’t budge. She must honor the commitment to marry the stranger — who actually is the son of a vanquished king, and therefore, her match in status and stature.

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Seeing her devastation, the prince poses his own riddle: If she can discover his name by morning, he will bow before the executioner. She then orders all her subjects to work through the night to learn his identity. And as he sits in his prison cell, Prince Calaf sings one of the most beloved tenor arias in all of opera: “Nessun dorma.”

Pupu’a pours his heart into this haunting declaration that none shall sleep and he, the incognito prince, shall melt Turandot’s heart with his kiss.

But two people in the crowd do know his name — his father and their servant, Liu, who holds the prince’s smile in her heart and will do anything to save his life.

Chloe Olivia Moore is incandescent as Liu, with a crystalline soprano that shimmers in the stratosphere and breaks everyone’s heart with her sacrifice.

Kudos also go to baritone Andrew McLaughlin, tenor Nicholas Nestorak and tenor Max Zander as Imperial Ministers Ping, Pang and Pong. With their vibrant, lively costumes and matching puppets, they prance through their scenes, offering welcomed moments of comic relief.

The huge chorus of rising operatic performers, community voices, adorable local children and dancers from the University of Iowa are stellar, as well. And the show is visually stunning, with a colorful Chinese dragon snaking through the celebrations, elaborate wigs and whimsical hats, and multilevel scenery and screened projections reflecting Asian artistry.

Bravo to everyone on the production team with Kleinknecht, including stage director William Ferrara from the University of Oklahoma; his sister and costume designer Martha Ferrara from the California Institute of the Arts; and choreographer Eloy Barragan from the University of Iowa.

All have crafted a production of legendary proportions.

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

IF YOU GO

l What: Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre presents “Turandot”

l Where: Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

l When: 2 p.m. Sunday (1/21)

l Tickets: $19 to $69, Paramount Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or Paramounttheatrecr.com; for $10 student tickets, call (319) 366-8203

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l Extras: Free curtain talk, 1 p.m., Paramount’s Encore Lounge; Sunday matinee broadcast live on Iowa Public Radio

l Details: Cr-opera.org

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