Old Chinese Fairy Tale Gets Fresh New Cast

By Elsa Tranter
11/28/2017

Photos by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

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A Grand Grand Opera—and a splendid night of theater—the current “Turandot”, Puccini’s final opera, has it all.  San Francisco has brought back this opera all the way from last September (yes just two months ago); some of the performers have changed and the conductor is new, and it seemed fresh and energized by the additions.  The David Hockney sets and costumes, evoking ancient and modern China, mainly in reds and greens, modern and abstract and also traditional, were wildly colorful; they looked better than ever.  It is hard to imagine that back in 1993 they were controversial—that does show that it takes time to adjust to change. The staging was carefully choreographed, flawlessly, by director Garnett Bruce.

The story is a classic fairy tale— Princess (Asian, daughter of Turan) will marry whoever can answer her three riddles; the stranger comes, answers the riddles,  but icy princess is scared of love so heroic stranger has to make her see the light!  All very romantic (if a little far-fetched).

 Leah Crocetto as Liù in Puccini's "Turandot."

Leah Crocetto as Liù in Puccini's "Turandot."

 Leah Crocetto as Liù in Puccini's "Turandot."

Leah Crocetto as Liù in Puccini's "Turandot."

Making a welcome return to San Francisco in the title role, world-renowned Swedish soprano Nina Stemme was a shimmering icy princess.  Dressed in a sea-foam green flowing gown she looked and sounded terrific.  It was a little hard not to be reminded of her emotional Brunnhilde in the Ring Cycle in 2011; this role is quite different and she was up to the task.  The role is very high in the vocal range and was thrilling to hear.  And of course, at the end, when she melts to Calaf’s kiss, the warmth came out more fully.

Reprising his acclaimed role from September was tenor Brian Jagde as Calaf, the handsome prince in disguise.  He got a big ovation after the classic ‘Nessun Dorma’ of Act III (and DID bring to mind a young Pavarotti).  Jagde’s voice is big and warm and he hit all the right notes.  San Franciscans are proud to claim him as one of their own (he trained as an Adler Fellow a few years ago).

 Nina Stemme as Princess Turandot and Brian Jagde as Calaf 

Nina Stemme as Princess Turandot and Brian Jagde as Calaf 

The other major addition to the cast was soprano Leah Crocetto as Liu, the slave girl who sacrifices her life out of love for Calaf.  Crocetto is another favorite of the San Francisco opera audience as she, too, was trained here.  She put her heart and soul into the part and it came across perfectly; she got the most rousing applause at the curtain call.

Playing the small role as Liu’s master, Timur (also in disguise as Calaf’s father) was bass Soloman Howard, making his San Francisco Opera debut.  He was suitably heartbreaking  and sang was great feeling. 

In the comic roles of Ping Pang and Pong, Joo Won Kang, Julius Ahn and Joel Sorensen performed as a well-oiled machine, singing, dancing, clowning around.  They’ve had plenty of opportunity to perfect their movements and blend their voices, and it showed.

Smaller roles (Brad Walker as a Mandarin and Robert Brubaker as the Emperor Altoum) and the fantastic Opera Chorus (directed by Ian Robertson) were all well sung and exciting.  The conductor for this second set of performances was Christopher Franklin, in his first appearance with the company.  He brought an invigorating energy to the pit and the evening seemed to fly by. 

This is a ‘must-see’ production for the first-time opera goer or for the seasoned subscriber—all will be thrilled.  Three performances remain:  Sunday December 3 at 2:00 and Wednesday December 6 and Saturday December 9, both at 7:30. 

 Nina Stemme as Princess Turandot and Brian Jagde as Calaf, with Robert Brubaker as Emperor Altoum

Nina Stemme as Princess Turandot and Brian Jagde as Calaf, with Robert Brubaker as Emperor Altoum


Elsa Tranter is a Bostonian who has lived in Berkeley for over 40 years and has been an opera goer for most of those years.  She worked as a graduate student adviser at UC Berkeley and still attends Cal Performances regularly.  Her favorite composer is Wagner and her favorite opera is Tristan und Isolde.