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Alexandra Loutsion comes home for her first title role — in 'Turandot'

| Wednesday, March 22, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
David Bachman Photography
Alexandra Loutsion as the icy Princess Turandot.
David Bachman Photography
Princess Turandot (Alexandra Loutsion) and her suitor Prince Calaf (Thiago Arancam).

Pittsburgh Opera's production of “Turandot,” opening March 25, has proved a double homecoming. Not only does this Italian interpretation of an ancient Asian tale bring composer Giacomo Puccini's own custom-made gongs to the Pittsburgh stage, it also brings home a Pennsylvania native to sing the title role in her first main stage performance as a full-fledged professional.

Alexandra Loutsion, who began singing in Pittsburgh's Children's Festival chorus and Junior Mendelssohn Choir, has performed as a Young Artist in Residence at the Pittsburgh Opera since 2010, and makes her official debut in one of the most challenging roles in all opera.

“Turandot” tells the story of Princess Turandot, the “Ice Queen” of ancient Peking. Anyone seeking the princess's hand must answer three riddles or risk being beheaded.

“It's a strange role,” says Loutsion of her regal character, who does not sing until midway through Act 2. “There is so much buildup surrounding her first vocal entrance that Puccini had to write with a bang, and he did. It's a dramatic role, and it's very high.”

This high, explosive style, popularized by soprano Birgit Nilsson on recordings, has left the role with a bombastic reputation, one which even extends to permanently shortening the careers of singers who specialize in it.

Loutsion doesn't hold strictly to this famous interpretation, saying, “Puccini's own interpretation was more nuanced, with softer and harder moments. There are a lot of moments for softness, like Puccini intended, and that's part of where I am taking the role.”

Loutsion's counterpart, playing the mysterious suitor Prince Calaf, is Thiago Arancam, a veteran of the role who has sung it in Auckland, Caracas and Naples, Fla. Near the start of the final act, Calaf sings “Nessun Dorma,” an aria strongly associated with Luciano Pavarotti in popular culture. Fans of the Grammy Awards may remember the 1998 ceremony, in which Pavarotti's throat problems led to his replacement at the last minute with soul singer Aretha Franklin. Rather than perform one of her own songs, she honored Pavarotti by singing “Nessun Dorma” herself.

Puccini composed “Turandot” shortly before his death in 1924, but did not finish the final act, which was completed by Franco Alfano. The score bears distinct elements of its time in popular culture, when the European fad for all things “Oriental” was in full swing.

“Westerners were just starting to discover the art of what they called the Orient — or Japan and China, as we know it today,” Loutsion says. “Puccini was hooked; he wrote both a Chinese and a Japanese themed opera. He was deeply invested in using authentic Asian elements in his music — he threaded authentic Chinese melodies into his Western score throughout Turandot, and the original gongs, which he personally approved and had custom built, add immensely to the sound of the piece. It really takes you on a journey to hear.”

Puccini's gongs are currently on display at the Pittsburgh Opera headquarters.

For Loutsion, the Pittsburgh Opera's production of “Turandot” is more than just an opportunity to sing a classic score by Puccini. For her, taking on the titular role of Princess Turandot is the culmination of her life's work. Just don't ask her how to pronounce the title role.

“There's the camp that insists it should be Turan-Dough, and the camp that says Turan-Dot,” she says. “I personally prefer Turan-Dot, as it's based on a Persian fairy tale, but the maestro has interpreted it as Turan-Dough, and we're all singing that.”

With one ice queen under her belt, Loutsion hopes to some day tackle the ultimate mean-queen role: “I am dying to play Lady Macbeth. Although the singing is very different than ‘Turandot,' there are similarities. I enjoy playing characters who are a little darker, and Lady Macbeth tops even Princess Turandot in that way.”

Greg Kerestan is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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