A 'Turandot' both silly and serious

Just because Opera Philadelphia has so many new-opera projects doesn't mean the company is neglecting the crowd-pleasing front.

Opening on Friday at the Academy of Music, Puccini's Turandot arrived in a determinedly high-impact production that - with expenses shared with companies in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and others - would not be dwarfed by the Metropolitan Opera's famously lavish Franco Zeffirelli extravaganza.

Indeed, the production crowded the Academy of Music stage almost in the spirit of Ringling Bros. in ways that were sometimes fun, but also irrelevant in this fairy tale of a frigid Chinese princess who beheads her suitors.

Is there any sensible reason for the title character - sung by the formidable Christine Goerke - to spend parts of Act III with her face covered by a white veil? It has to go - if only for the safety factor of navigating a complicated stage set.

Stage director Renaud Doucet, who was also part of the 2009 Turandot production here, traded twirling virgins from seven years ago for twirling acrobats with sticks jutting out of their backs. No matter that Turandot's ministers, Ping, Pang, and Pong, have some of the opera's best music; their stage business was obtrusively silly. Showmanship is one thing; stage clutter is another.

But in the big picture, every element was several notches higher than in 2009. And underneath the busy surfaces, strong artistic statements were made.

The orchestra was in mighty form under music director Corrado Rovaris, and the lavish orchestration took on much greater power in his brisk un-indulgent leadership.

Most laudable was the ending: Franco Alfano completed the opera after the composer died, though his contribution is thought to be merely adequate. But thanks to extra conviction from the pit and some truly thoughtful character interplay, the ending effectively climaxed the opera.

Among the leading singers, despite occasional pitch problems, Goerke had a rare combination of vocal power and theatrical savvy in what can often be a mere park-and-bark role. A 2014 Turandot video showed tenor Marco Berti, playing the suitor Calef, to be vocally impressive but theatrically inert. No longer. He held the stage beautifully, and one can only quietly complain that the voice was a bit dry. Morris Robinson was riveting forceful in the brief role of Timur, the deposed king. Joyce El-Khoury, an Academy of Vocal Arts graduate, stole everybody's heart as the slave girl Liu, thanks to her convincing portrayal, and floated high notes that recalled the glory years of Montserrat Caballé. Yes, really.

Repeat performances are Sept. 28, Sept. 30, and Oct. 2 at the Academy of Music. Tickets: 215-732-8400 or www.operaphila.org

dstearns@phillynews.com