It’s not every opera that plays a key role in a “Mission: Impossible” action flick.
But that’s what “Turandot” does in the Tom Cruise-starring blockbuster, “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.” “Turandot” is Puccini’s last and most demanding work, and the Wichita Grand Opera will perform it Friday at Century II and then take it on the road for the company’s first foray into Kansas City, on Aug. 30.
The opera may be set in ancient China, and it may have been first performed at La Scala in 1926, but society at large is being exposed to “Turandot” this summer as it takes up 15 minutes of an action sequence in “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.” Moviegoers catch peeks of the ancient-Chinese set of “Turandot” and hear parts of the dramatic score performed at the Vienna State Opera as a tense assassination attempt unfolds in the wings.
The timing of the film is as good for WGO president Parvan Bakardiev as the shot of a rifle is during the singing of a certain high note from the famous “Turandot” aria “Nessun Dorma” during the movie.
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“I’m very excited,” said Bakardiev of the upcoming performance. “They’ll see the real thing on stage in Wichita.”
Brazilian tenor Ricardo Tamura will play the role of Prince Calaf, and opera star Samuel Ramey will reprise the role of the prince’s father, Timur – the role that launched Ramey’s opera career in the 1970s with the New York City Opera, and the one with which he bade farewell to the Metropolitan Opera two or three years ago.
Bulgarian soprano Zvetelina Vassileva will be singing the part of Princess Turandot for the first time in her career.
“The music, of course, is Puccini’s masterpiece,” Bakardiev said, and it is “extremely demanding” of the singers.
The opera will be sung in Italian, with English supertitles.
“Turandot” tells the story of a beautiful but icy princess who refuses all advances by men in revenge for an ancestor’s death at the hands of a conquering prince. As Turandot’s suitors present themselves, they are asked three riddles. They must either answer all three correctly — or forfeit their lives.
When Prince Calaf comes on the scene, he becomes the latest to fall under the princess’ spell. Despite the pleas of his father and a devoted servant who is in love with him, Calaf presents himself to answer the riddles, confident that he will become the first to answer correctly and win Turandot’s love.
Basically, the opera has all the danger, suspense and romance of a “Mission: Impossible” movie, except without the bullets — and with “incredible music,” in the words of soprano Vassileva.
“I adore this music,” said Vassileva, who has played the part of Liu, the devoted servant, in the past.
She is finding it “a very big challenge” to take the role of Turandot. Vassileva is striving to infuse the role with some warmth and make the cold Turandot human.
“If she’s so horrible, nobody likes her, nobody dies for her,” she said.
Vassileva said she was particularly proud to be performing with Ramey, whom she met when making her operatic debut in San Francisco years ago.
“Everybody knows him,” she said. “He’s a star, a world star.”
She’s singing with Tamura, whose only other appearances in the United States this year are with the Metropolitan Opera, for the first time.
“He’s a gorgeous voice and a very good person, a good artist,” Vassileva said. “I’m so proud. We have a good team.”
The Wichita audience will hear tenor Tamura sing the aria that many people know from “Turandot” — “Nessun Dorma” (“None Shall Sleep”). (The title and music of the aria also are slipped into “Mission: Impossible” as actress Rebecca Ferguson flips through the score as she prepares to shoot her rifle on just the right note during the singing of the aria.) Luciano Pavarotti’s version of the aria became the theme song of the 1990 FIFA World Cup and was a standard song of his Three Tenors trio. The aria has been picked up by pop singers and played on TV shows and in movies and other sporting events, including Pavarotti’s last appearance, the Torino Winter Olympics in 2006.
The prince’s cry at the end of the aria is the declaration of contestants of all times and places: “I will win! I will win! I will win!”
Ramey, a Colby native who lives in the Wichita area, said he didn’t expect to play the role of Timur again.
“Usually you sing it when you’re first beginning, and you sing it toward the end of your career,” Ramey said. “It’s not a large role. ... He’s an old man, he’s blind, so he doesn’t do anything very exciting on stage. But it’s a very nice part to do. He’s a very tender fellow. It’s a nice relief from the other parts I have done.” And from the next one he will be doing: portraying the Grand Inquisitor in Wichita Grand Opera’s production of “Don Carlo” on Sept. 25 and 27.
“I’ve done a number of Puccini operas — ‘La Boheme,’ ‘Gianni Schicchi,’ ‘Tosca’ — but ‘Turandot’ was the last thing he did, so it’s quite a bit different musically. You see the changes in his composing style. It’s quite a remarkable piece,” he said.
Martin Mazik will conduct the orchestra, which must be very large to carry the drama, Bakardiev said.
Ramey made his debut with Lyric Opera of Kansas City in the role of Timur at the Kauffman Performing Arts Center in Kansas City right after it opened in 2011. He’ll be reprising the role in the Kansas City area when Wichita Grand Opera takes “Turandot” to Yardley Hall in Overland Park on Aug. 30.
The WGO is also teaming up with the Wichita Asian Association. The organization will have exhibits of Chinese and Asian art and culture in the lobby at Friday night’s performance, and Asian dancers who live in Wichita will perform in the opera, Bakardiev said.
If you’ve been wondering how to pronounce “Turandot,” well, there’s a controversy about that. Is it Turandot, TuranDOTE, or TuranDOUGH? Bakardiev’s pronunciation comes down on the dot. Ramey declares that it is in between “dot” and “dote.” In his rich, bass voice, he enunciates “Turandot” in a way that most other people would find impossible to replicate.