Thursday, July 30, 2015

Spectacle almost dominated, but superb singing held its own in Cincinnati Opera's "Turandot"

Years ago at the Indianapolis Star, a colleague of mine wrote about a speech in which the speaker used the completion of Giacomo Puccini's "Turandot" by Franco Albano as an example of how friends can successfully pick up the baton from a fallen comrade and complete an interrupted task.

Not knowing opera, the reporter misheard the title as "Turnabout." And as "Turnabout" the reference to Puccini's opera got past the editors and was published. Amusing as the error was, the work with which Cincinnati Opera is ending its 2015 season is as great an example of turnabout as opera affords.

The splendor of the Chinese imperial court as reflected in Cincinnati Opera's "Turandot."
The hardened Chinese princess Turandot is converted away from cruelty toward unsuccessful suitors as well as her own people and toward love, which she had foresworn.  Turning her about is the unparalleled devotion to his task of Prince Calaf, in exile from his homeland along with his father, the banished ruler Timur, and his faithful slave, Liu. Making the turnabout convincing musically and dramatically worried Puccini, who succumbed to throat cancer before filling out sketches for the final scene.

To be sure, the character of Turandot and her eventual susceptibility to ardent love are not easy to reconcile with normal human behavior — no matter how enlightened or primitive one's view of the battle of the sexes may be. Yet when the staging is as rich in illusion as this production's, you can readily treat the story as a Chinese fairy tale.

The Canadian team of Renaud Doucet (stage director and choreographer) and Andre Barbe (scenic and costume designer) make it all work spectacularly. At the same time, as seen Wednesday night, the fitness of the principals for their roles and the choral singers' protean skills ensure that the psychological dimension of the exotic tale is well served.

Most crucially, the steadfastness of Calaf in wearing down Turandot's resistance — fueled by his correct answers to three risky riddles, the suicide of the lovelorn Liu on his behalf, and his magnanimous offer to free Turandot from her obligation to marry him — win the day. It all adds up to as certain a love-driver as the magic potion in "Tristan und Isolde," on which Puccini modeled his lovers' final duet.

From the outset, the social milieu was so stirringly portrayed that the long-term cost of Turandot's fondness for beheadings and what we would now call state terrorism was unmistakable. With the craven movement of the chorus up, down and across the stage as the latest trial and execution move toward completion, the audience catches the fearful submission of the masses to tyranny. These choristers were as apt for milling about and giving vent to mixed emotions as they were when they were called upon to plant their feet and sing. They did that wonderfully — a feast for eyes and ears —  in praising the aged Emperor in the second act and welcoming the royal marriage in the splendid last measures of the third.

The massive red arch that frames the action in the first act embraces a variegated disc that represents sun or moon (as called for). Together, the forms complement and impose fatefulness upon the set's multiple planes of action. Everyone moved fluently on and among these challenging spatial platforms. In the second act, for contrast,  large decorative screens form an idyllic backdrop to the comical ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong and their overlapping moods of officiousness and nostalgia.

Ramon Tebar, who made a strong impression last year in the company's production of Puccini's other Asian opera, "Madama Butterfly," conducted with a secure feeling for "Turandot"'s larger range of instrumental and vocal expression. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra brought out the score's full palette judiciously under his guidance, even if a few big climaxes covered tenor Frank Porretta now and then.

Moving right along to those principals: Poretta commanded both the lyrical and heroic aspects of Calaf's role. His "Nessun dorma" covered all the essentials of the opera's hit aria. The conventional hold on the next-to-last note — the "ce" of "vincero" — was not overextended, happily, but it was gloriously sustained.  His performance throughout was tasteful but never staid. This Calaf was believably obsessed with breaking through Turandot's flinty exterior. Sometimes he seemed to be contending with Tebar on matters of tempo, but not much as to throw off a well-coordinated
working relationship.

Marcy Stonikas was one of three principals making a Cincinnati Opera debut. Her Turandot was imperious, an indispensable quality,  and she made the character as believable as possible. Her soprano had a consistent strength, and, even better, the signs of thaw in the Princess' demeanor were adroitly managed.

The Princess Turandot (Marcy Stonikas) addresses her subjects.
As Liu, Nora Amsellem, also a company debutante, enraptured me. She displayed total vocal control, with finely judged dynamics. The soft radiance of her high B-flat in Liu's recollection of Calaf's smile was a first-act harbinger of extensive piano singing in the demanding third act, just before Liu makes the ultimate sacrifice to affirm her loyalty to the royal father and son she serves.

Also new to Cincinnati Opera, bass Andrea Mastroni as Timur displayed the banished ruler's powerful yet plaintive assessment of what he deserves and what has been denied him. The shocked collective mourning for Liu was made particularly effective by Mastroni's performance.

Finally, the "masks" — comically conceived imperial ministers who function as both outsiders and insiders — were delightfully inhabited by Jonathan Beyer (Ping), Julius Ahn (Pang) and Joseph Hu (Pong). These odd characters, in costumes that had some of the drollery of old-fashioned nursery toys, need to be nimbly sung in voices that comment upon the action and reflect on the misery of China under the sway of Turandot and her ineffectual father, the Emperor (Chris Merritt). And that's how they were done here: The blitheness came through, though there is nothing carefree about how astutely Ping, Pang, and Pong have to blend vocally.


All told, in Cincinnati Opera's "Turandot," turnabout is much more than fair play. It's also excellent work, sumptuously fleshing out the story's legendary aura and fully responsive to the manifold lusters of Puccini's music.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]