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Opera Pacific mounts an attractive ‘Turandot’

Times Staff Writer

Opera Pacific opened its new season Tuesday with a spare but attractive production of Puccini’s “Turandot” at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Created for Minnesota Opera in 1995 and refurbished in 2000 by Houston Grand Opera, this James Robinson staging employs movable metal towers up to 13 feet high, flights of stairs of varying lengths and smaller set pieces. They are pushed about by stagehands clad in black like bunraku puppet theater assistants.

Emperor Altoum sang from the greatest height. His head was framed in a halo of gold, making him resemble a Byzantine icon. His daughter, the Princess Turandot, was wheeled in on a platform a few feet lower. She was veiled and dressed in a white bridal gown and looked as if she had stepped out of a Goya painting.

Court ministers Ping, Pang and Pong were also gorgeously dressed (costumes by Anna Oliver) and stood perched in 5-foot-high drums that made them look like amusement park fortune-telling machines. When they took a break from their official duties, they turned out to be doddering, pot-bellied figures dressed in red Santa Claus pajamas. They sat around striking matches to relight their opium pipes, which triggered dreams of retirement. They were attended by three pint-sized, pigtailed children.

There was always something to look at in Anita Stewart’s lean, economical scenic design. John Boesche provided projections of cloudy skies, Chinese texts and abstract but sensuous designs, much like velvet-backed greeting cards. Christopher Sprague lighted all of this with nuance and drama.

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Director Jay Jackson elicited persuasive action from many of the principals. The deposed king Timur’s farewell to his devoted slave girl Liu was uncommonly poignant.

Calaf, the unknown prince, actually seemed to be pondering Turandot’s riddles. Liu’s suicide was intense, even a bit over the top, but this, after all, is the last music Puccini wrote, leaving the opera unfinished.

Making his company debut as Calaf, Frank Porretta husbanded his resources until the riddle scene, when he opened up. His tenor was sturdy and somewhat dull in color except when he hit the role’s bright high notes. Adrienne Dugger, in her company debut as Turandot, sang with a wobble until she pushed into the stratosphere. Her low and middle ranges tended to evaporate, however.

Zvetelina Vassileva was a strong, dark-toned, focused Liu, Sun Yu a rough-textured Timur. The trio of ministers was sung modestly by In Joon Jang (Ping), Gregory Schmidt (Pang) and Mark Panuccio (Pong). Joseph Frank was an involved Emperor.

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John DeMain conducted reliably, offering his extended version of the ending composed by Franco Alfano, which was last performed locally in August at the Hollywood Bowl.

Singing the opera Friday and Sunday will be a different cast of principals, including up-and-coming Chinese tenor Yu Qiang Dai, whose debut CD on EMI Classics was released in August.

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‘Turandot’

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Where: Opera Pacific at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 tonight, Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

Price: $35 to $185

Contact: (800) 346-7372

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