The first thing to know about Turandot is that it is emphatically not about China. Though ostensibly the opera is set there, Puccini's fictional Middle Kingdom bears so little resemblance to the real deal that the show may as well be set on Neptune. No, Turandot is an Orientalist work in the purest sense: It employs the countries of the Far East as a blank slate, a screen on which to project Western fears and desires. And if I had to present just one criticism of Portland Opera's new Turandot, it would be this: None of my fears and desires were up on that stage. Not a single one.
Turandot is the story of a Chinese ice princess who tells her suitors three riddles: She will marry the man who solves all three, but the penalty for a single incorrect answer is death. Historically, this unfinished work has been the occasion for some of the opera world's most imaginative and elaborate productions; witness, for instance, Zubin Mehta's 1998 rendering inside China's Forbidden City, a titanic production with a cast of thousands. But for this staging, Portland Opera has chosen to resurrect a 17-year-old Welsh National Opera production that reimagines Puccini's warhorse as a slog through Maoist China: a stripped-down, brooding look at the politics of desire in a totalitarian state. Whether such an experiment could ever bear fruit remains unclear, but it certainly doesn't meet with much success in Keller Auditorium. Soprano Lori Phillips, who has performed a half a dozen dazzling Turandots in venues around the country, is here forced to stagger about the stage in unmotivated fits of erotic agony, prompting a confused opening night audience to speculate afterward as to whether she was "drunk" or just "old." The set—a flimsy-looking corrugated iron crescent that has been spray-painted a motley purple—looks less like Beijing, more like a low-rent gay club.
But wait, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Musically, this show is in pretty good shape. Conductor Leonardo Vordoni leads the orchestra through a truly memorable moonrise, and the Portland Opera Chorus—when they aren't distracted with bizarre interpretive dances in Act I—manages very well with Puccini's complex tonal psychology. Special praise is due to Grazia Doronzio as Liu—her lovely spinto soprano carries her to a thrilling pianissimo at the conclusion of "Signore, Ascolta!"
SEE IT: Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St., 241-1802, portlandopera.org. 7:30 pm Thursday and Saturday, Feb. 10 and 12. $20-$155.