OPERA REVIEWS : Valedictories of Verdi and Puccini : 'Turandot': After years of travel, Allen Charles Klein's controversial version of Puccini's Chinese tale arrives in Orange County.


Reviled and controversial when it first appeared in the early 1980s (San Francisco Opera first saw it in the summer of 1982, after it had already visited Dallas, Houston and Miami), Allen Charles Klein's Disneyesque production of Puccini's "Turandot" has traveled much, to a mixed reception, ever since.

Over the weekend, it arrived in Costa Mesa, just a few miles from the real Fantasyland in Anaheim, where it would surely fit right in. The familiar production, more cartoony than legendary, still evokes more the ambience of mid-20th-Century Hollywood than ancient Peking, more Terry and the Pirates than Old China.

In the welcoming atmosphere of Segerstrom Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, however, it looks like an unimaginative opera-lover's dream version of Puccini's final opera. And, as such, it was cheered enthusiastically by the dressed-to-kill, opening-night crowd on Friday.

Around this sometimes overwrought production, softened in some of its details--at one time, the Emperor's beard was reportedly 12-feet long, for instance--Opera Pacific has gathered respectable musical forces to essay Puccini's demanding score. Those forces have been given effective and canny stage direction by Matthew Lata. At the first performance, the large cast gave a more than adequate representation--using the abridged Act III finale written by Franco Alfano.

Looking genial and relaxed, Louis Salemno also conducted Act I without particular urgency; he was seconded rather half-heartedly by everyone on the packed Segerstrom stage.

Salemno & Co. seemed to come to life as the action of the opera progressed; by the time the controversial Alfano music arrived, genuine energy had gripped all hands. Even earlier, after it had warmed up, the orchestra, whose roster lists a number of familiar names, gave Salemno full value for his urgings.

Trained by Michael Carson, the large chorus--twice as large as the "Traviata" chorus heard last month--sang lustily and with healthy sounds, but seemed underpowered, not only in the first act, where everyone was tentative, but later as well.

The principals also bloomed late. Johanna Meier's supremely vulnerable Princess--she seemed to melt before our eyes in Act III--began badly, with an "In questa reggia" so effortful and wobbly it put the remainder of the opera in question.

Immediately after, Meier appeared to recover, and from then on she integrated text and tone beautifully, giving all the while an object lesson in operatic acting. Meier is a valuable Turandot.

Lando Bartolini, remembered from some mediocre New York City Opera performances at our Music Center a decade ago, proved this time around a worthy and admirable Calaf, one of reliable and ringing high notes, a manly, reassuring presence and utter stage-confidence. Rank pretty, vocally ordinary Maria Spacagna among the standard wimpy and unfaceted Lius of the world.

For all his vocal roundness, Herbert Perry impersonated a stock and undistinctive Timur. But Ping, Pang and Pong, in the bright and resourceful trio of Ron Baker, Darren Keith Woods and Jonathan Green, made Act II, for once, a treat instead of a snore.

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