It is all but impossible not to love Giacomo Puccini's rich and moving music, and in his last opera, Turandot, the Italian composer reaches one of his peaks. As as so often is the case in Puccini's operas, the orchestra emerges as an emotional and dramatic narrator of the story. The correlation here between word and music is amazing. The more familiar one is with its passionate plot, revolving around the Chinese princess Turandot who sends scores of young suitors to their deaths as consequence for failing to solve three riddles, the more they will enjoy the opera. "Turandot, like almost all Italian opera, is replete with beautiful melodies," says young Israeli conductor Rani Calderon, who leads the new Israel Opera production opening this week. "But unlike Puccini's other operas, which are more intimate in character,Turandot is influenced by French grand opera, and its powerful choirs. The choir counts about one hundred singers and plays an important role in the entire piece. The orchestra is also larger than usual; it counts 85 musicians and includes many percussion instruments, some of them quite exotic." The production, originally created by Spanish director Nuria Espert, has gathered excited reviews everywhere it's been staged. An Italian director Marco Gandini, who first came to Israel as an assistant to Franco Zeffirelli, revives it for the Israeli stage. "We enjoy perfect cooperation," says Calderon, speaking of his partner from the creative team. "Marco has staged Turandot many times and knows the score perfectly. Luckily enough, we saw the score through the same eyes, and more importantly, he always found a way to support my musical interpretations with his directorial solutions." "This is a near-traditional production," Calderon adds, "spectacular and full of impressive effects." The two casts combine new and familiar names. Sylvie Valayre, making her Israeli debut in the title role, appears with Piero Giuliacci (Prince Calaf), who is quite familiar to the local audience, in the first cast; while Baysa Dashnyam, the Mongolian soprano now based in Bulgaria, sings in the second, alongside Antonio Nagore. Liu, the faithful servant girl in love with Calaf, is sung by a young Italian soprano Susanna Brancini, with Israelis Michal Shamir and Sharon Azriaeli appearing in some performances. Three choirs participate in the production - those of the opera, the Philharmonic choir and a children's chorus, Bat Kol. Performances take place between March 8 and 23 at the Tel Aviv Opera House. See www.israel-opera.co. or call (03) 692-7777 for details.