I last heard Chinese opera tenor Yu Qiang Dai over a year ago, amid the chilly elegance of the Portland Classical Chinese Garden, where he sang al fresco on a cold April afternoon. Through frigid air--it had just stopped hailing--Dai expelled not just steam but waves of brilliantly ringing sound.
Last Saturday, in his Portland Opera debut, Dai was still sending out gorgeous sound amid chilly elegance in Turandot, the coldly murderous fairy tale that is Giacomo Puccini's final opera. The plot follows a Chinese princess-as-praying mantis who bites the heads off her men until she loses her own to a stranger who won't take no for an answer. Dai raised steam as Calaf, the princess's suitor, and the heat of his performance offered the American debut of a Calaf who combines vocal power and sensitivity with a handsome and agile stage presence, factors not often combined in this role. Dai's high-quality performance also gave the audience the thrill of experiencing an artist who could very soon become an operatic star of international magnitude.
Dai is a tenor of seemingly effortless heroism, with energy and brilliance to burn--so much energy, in fact, that he more than occasionally rattled the cage of conductor Hal France's established tempi. Calming Dai's excitability and softening some of his first-night stiffness were the two female principals--Caroline Whisnant's Turandot (also in her Portland Opera debut) and Cynthia Haymon's Liù, the slave girl who loves Calaf from afar. Both radiated presence commanding yet serene. In her killer opening aria, "In questa reggia," Whisnant powered her way through the toweringly high tessitura with laser-beam ease, while Haymon's silky and sensual soprano proved that sensitivity and volume can live in the same voice. Her final aria, "Tu, che di gel sei cinta," addressed to the ice-locked Turandot as she admits her love for Calaf, glowed with the surge of concealed passion and the whisper of relieved confession.
Providing wickedly adroit comic relief were baritone Jeff Morrissey and tenors Jon Kolbet and Kevin Skiles, as the meddlesome mandarins Ping, Pang and Pong. The brief comprimario role of Turandot's father, the aged Emperor Altoum, was given unexpected eloquence and heft by buff young tenor Marc Acito. The Portland Opera chorus sang and acted with its usual flair. Conductor France approached Puccini's wildest score with an ear for details and subdued atmosphere--if his intention was to showcase his excellent singers, he succeeded.
This is a restaging of the 1995 production, and the sets and costumes--a chop suey of Ming, Qing and Spanish Inquisition--are a little scuffed. But director Peter Rothstein moved his troops stylishly across the backdrop of John Boesche's projections, in which the inscrutable beauty of Chinese characters and landscapes are interspersed with images of life, death and hope.
Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St., 241-1802. 7:30 pm Thursday and Saturday, Nov. 13 and 15. $30-$125.