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In Review > North America

Turandot

CINCINNATI
Cincinnati Opera
7/25/15

IN ADVERTISING ITS SEASON-CLOSING TURANDOT, Cincinnati Opera emphasized the production by Renaud Doucet (direction and choreography) and André Barbe (sets and costumes). The show was, indeed, spectacular, the action set amid open circles and arches of cinnabar and gold, populated with lavishly clothed crowds of singers, dancers, and actors. The considerable cruelty of the story was shown both symbolically (the severed heads printed on the sleeves of Turandot’s robe) and graphically (the torture of Liù). Comic elements were played to the hilt, with Ping, Pang, and Pong (and three silent attendants) turned into a precision dance team. And just when it was threatening to become too much, everything changed at the death of Liù, with the ministers gently tending to Timur as the crowd silently filed off the stage. Alone, a sobbing Turandot waited for Calàf’s return. It was a powerful moment, a long silence exposing the heart of this opera.

Musically, too, the evening was highly satisfying. All but two singers (the Calàf and the Prince of Persia) were making company debuts in this production. In the title role, Marcy Stonikas was fearless, hurling the riddles at Calàf and riding the massive ensemble at the end of the second act. There was sweetness as well when the music revealed Turandot’s vulnerability. It was an impressive debut, and it would be good to hear more from Stonikas.

That should also be said of Norah Amsellem, whose Liù quite possibly stole the show. Hers is a substantial lyric soprano, with plenty of body in the middle and lower registers and a well-projected pianissimo. She acted with dignity and conviction, suggesting that Turandot might indeed learn from Liù’s sacrifice. 

Making his U.S. debut as the elderly Timur, Andrea Mastroni looked like a fragile ivory carving likely to be shattered by the surrounding violence, but his voice was anything but frail. It is an imposing sound, full, noble, and rich. He, too, will be a valuable presence on operatic stages in years to come.

Frank Porretta, who joined the cast after another singer withdrew because of illness, was more variable in the role of Calàf. Heard to advantage in earlier Cincinnati productions, Porretta has an attractive voice, with a seemingly easy top—he sustained the first-act call to Turandot quite impressively, and his “Nessun dorma” was enthusiastically received. However, a good deal of the music lies rather low, and at least on opening night, he was often covered by the orchestra. Nor was he ideally audible in the more lightly scored moments of the riddle scene. 

Ping (Jonathan Beyer), Pang (Julius Ahn) and Pong (Joseph Hu) proved adept at all the choreography they were assigned, and managed to sing well simultaneously, particularly in their nostalgic passages at the beginning of Act II. It was good to see and hear Chris Merritt embodying the old Emperor Altoum with clarity and grace. Norman Garrett was a sturdy Mandarin, and Danielle Messina and Megan Ann Slack made the most of their moment as Turandot’s handmaids.

The chorus is a critical element in Turandot, and the Cincinnati Opera Chorus did themselves proud. The sound was opulent in the massed onstage choruses, the sopranos unfazed by Puccini’s sometimes extreme demands. The offstage passages for women’s voices were done with great delicacy. The Cincinnati Boychoir sang beautifully onstage, but would have benefitted from more voices in their offstage moments.

Puccini said that he wanted to break new ground in Turandot, and the orchestration of this opera is probably his most adventurous. To have an orchestra of the caliber of the Cincinnati Symphony available is a real luxury. Ramón Tebar, who conducted an excellent Madama Butterfly last year, made a welcome return for this production. Tempos felt unfailingly right, and he supported the singers throughout. He conducted the music with obvious affection, relishing Puccini’s colorful score and bringing out seldom heard nuances (for instance, the clarinet figures in Turandot’s second riddle). It was a most satisfying conclusion for the company’s ninety-fifth season. —Joe Law

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