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Christine Brewer debuts as ice princess

In Puccini's "Turandot," the title character is an imperious princess whose icy heart melts when she responds to a lover's kiss — just in time for the final curtain.
/ Source: The Associated Press

In Puccini's "Turandot," the title character is an imperious princess whose icy heart melts when she responds to a lover's kiss — just in time for the final curtain.

Singing the role in a complete performance for the first time, soprano Christine Brewer herself took a while to warm to the challenge.

The occasion was a concert version of the opera at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday night, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by music director Gustavo Dudamel.

Brewer, a dramatic soprano with a huge voice that combines plush sound and steeliness, would seem to have all the ingredients for an ideal Turandot. Yet she was surprisingly tentative in her opening aria, "In questa reggia." in which she traces her hatred of men to the murder of a long-ago ancestor in ancient China. Her top notes were thin and uncertain, and she chopped them off prematurely. Part of the problem may have been some distortion of her powerhouse voice under the heavy miking in the outdoor arena. When she performed the same aria in concert with the New York City Opera last fall, she sounded magnificent.

Happily, matters improved significantly in the final scene (completed by Franco Alfano after Puccini's death) when she tells of shedding her first tears in the aria "Del prima pianto." Here she sang with an aching tenderness, and her laser-beam high notes were full and centered.

Even though Turandot is one of the briefest title roles in opera, Brewer alone among the principals carried a score and frequently referred to it. Should she decide to keep the role in her relatively small repertory, it will be intriguing to hear how she fares in a staged performance in an opera house.

Certainly, she could not hope for a better supporting cast. Filling in for an ailing colleague, tenor Frank Porretta was superb as Calaf, the prince who solves Turandot's three riddles and then wins her heart. He poured out a stream of rich sound all night, and his extended high note at the end of "Nessun dorma" was an impressive feat of stamina.

As Liu, the slave girl who kills herself rather than betray Calaf, soprano Hei-Kyung Hong sang with the lustrous tone and straightforward lyricism that have made her a mainstay of the Metropolitan Opera for more than a quarter-century. Bass Alexander Vinogradov sounded eloquent in his few opportunities as Calaf's father, Timur, while baritone Timothy Mix was animated and incisive as the leader of the trio of ministers Ping, Pang and Pong.

There are few operas in which the chorus plays so important a part, and the combined forces of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Los Angeles Children's Chorus were tremendous in a variety of roles — from the Peking populace crying out for blood, to the hushed voices of a moonlit serenade, to the ghosts of the many princes who have fallen victim to Turandot.

As for Dudamel and his orchestra, it was a treat to hear Puccini's score played with such verve and elegance. Dudamel reveled in the Orientalisms (Puccini included xylophones and Chinese gongs in his orchestration) and in the many quicksilver shifts in tempo and dynamics. The dramatic climaxes that end each act resounded with awe-inspiring power in the night air. But he also brought out some unexpectedly delicate harmonies in the strings that accompany the three ministers as they lament the pastoral lives they left behind to live at court. That scene can often seem like a tedious marking of time before Turandot's arrival, but under Dudamel's baton it became an interlude to treasure.