By Phil Hall | May 20, 2008

Opera fans should rejoice over this stunning filmed performance of the Vienna State Opera’s 1983 production of “Turandot,” which was originally broadcast on Austrian television and is now having its U.S. DVD premiere. And for those who know little about opera but are curious to give it a go, this production is the perfect point of entry.

Conceived for the stage by Broadway musical director Harold Prince and faithfully captured on camera by Rodney Greenberg, this brilliantly iridescent interpretation of the Puccini opera unfolds with a visceral intellectual and spiritual energy that elevates the too-often stodgy operatic environment into a higher dimension of power and glory. The production’s design offers a disconcerting yet innovative style, with the cast wearing elaborate masks and glittering costumes that takes the opera out of its ancient China setting into what could only be described as a visual parallel universe.

Yet the eccentricity of the design enhances the raw emotions of the opera’s tale of loyalty, cruelty and love – the antiquated Orientalism that cheapens so many “Turandot” staging (particularly the politically incorrect attempts to make white opera singers look Chinese) is replaced with a location-neutral but style-rich environment that boldly reaffirms the universality of the story.

The production is also blessed with extraordinary performances by Jose Carreras as Calf (who performs what could be described as the definitive version of the aria “Nessun dorma ”), Katia Ricciarelli’s sublime doomed Liu, and Eva Marton’s ice princess evil as the title character. Marton, in particular, is a sight to behold – this woman can achieve extraordinary emotional power and fury simply by fixing an unblinking gaze at those who dare to challenge her omnipotence. Rarely has there been an opera star who can command the stage by saying absolutely nothing, and Marton’s work is a dramatic revelation.

As for Puccini’s music – well, it doesn’t get better than this. Bravo to conductor Loren Maazel for this presentation.

The talent and imagination on display is so overwhelming that one can easily gain new faith in opera DVDs. I found myself cheering and applauding by the closing credits, and I cannot imagine I will be alone in that response.

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