The wisdom of Şerban’s approach, which encloses the action within a reproduction of a tiered wooden theater, with the chorus commenting on the action from the sidelines, was apparent the moment soprano Sabina Cvilak began Liu’s first act aria, “Signore, ascolta.” Liu is usually one of Puccini’s more thankless roles, a dull vision of innocence amidst a grand cavalcade of cruelty, exoticism and sensuality. She is a Chinese Micaela, the Bore of Beijing, a throw-away role for the piccola donna, with two good but not great arias that only hinder the audience’s real pleasure: The relentless forward motion of Puccini’s climaxes.
But Cvilak’s Liu was worth slowing down for. The Slovenian soprano is a fine singer, with a remarkably pure voice, a well-supported pianissimo and surprising strength when she needs it. She sang and acted with clarity and an affecting directness, which is, of course, the only way that poor Liu can be effective on stage.