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by Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times

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Libretto: G. Adami & R. Simoni; Composer: Giacomo Puccini

At: Lyric Opera of Chicago at Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr.

Tickets: 312-827-5600 or; $20-$349. Runs through: Jan. 27

Italian composer Giacomo Puccini died in 1924 before completing his grandiose Chinese fable Turandot, leaving Franco Alfano to finish it. But, oddly, this hasn't stopped Turandot from gaining an firm spot in the standard operatic repertoire.

Neither has Turandot's dramatically dubious libretto hindered audiences from embracing it. I personally have never bought that the exiled prince Calaf would pass over the loyal love from the slave LiÃ' in favor of the bloodthirsty title Beijing princess ( especially one who has her suitors beheaded if they can't correctly answer her trio of enigmatic riddles ).

But what ultimately makes Turandot worthwhile is Puccini's gorgeous music ( the soaring Act III aria "Nessun Dorma" is virtually on every greatest opera hits compilation ). It's a score that revels in exotic colors and heart-stirring bombast. It's the perfect excuse for an opera company splash on stage all kinds of oriental spectacle.

The Lyric Opera of Chicago's past three gos at Turandot ( 1992, 1997 and 2007 ) featured the abstracted Asian construction paper cut-out designs of famed British artist David Hockney. So clearly it was time for a different Turandot.

The new-to-Chicago production, designed by Bliss Hebert and Allen Charles Klein, doesn't have the same cultural cachet or complexity to its look. And that's even with an omnipresent sculptural dragon and an oversized orb for video projections. Yet it's something different and delivers an eyeful while functionally fitting the work's demands.

Maybe it was all those raked steps that made director Rob Kearley's production on its December opening something of a cautionary exercise to the performances and music-making in the pit. There wasn't anything out of place in conductor Andrew Davis solid reading of the score, but it could have used an extra "oomph" to make it more vital.

In the title role, American soprano Amber Wagner powered through the treacherous passages to make for a commanding princess who doesn't want to be dominated by men. As Calaf, Italian tenor was a stock and face-front performer who ultimately got the job done, even though he broke character to take a bow after his famous aria.

Much more interesting stage performances came from the goading and homesick administrators Ping ( Zachary Nelson ), Pang ( Rodell Rosel ) and Pong ( Keith Jameson ). Italian soprano Maria Agresta made a respectable LiÃ', though it will be exciting to see how hometown soprano Janai Brugger interprets the same role when finishes out the run in her Lyric debut.

Overall, the Lyric's new Turandot fills all the necessary prerequisites for a grandiose opera occasion. However, it could do with more dramatic heart and verve to make it something special.

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