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Festival Opera's Triumphant Turandot

July 11, 2009

Festival Opera

Everything about Puccini’s opera Turandot is big: big orchestra, big voices, big chorus, enormous sets, and massive emotions. So it is daring for a company the size of Festival Opera to undertake such a giant. But no need to worry, for this is a triumphant Turandot. Last Saturday’s opening night audience, at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, indicated this by its unstinting cheers and applause.

At the center of this Italian-told Chinese fairy tale is a pair of outsized protagonists: the man-fearing princess Turandot and the fellow who dares to teach her love, the wandering prince Calaf. Soprano Othalie Graham’s princess was imperious of voice and stature throughout. Her voice is a thrilling amalgam of gold and steel, and she sang Puccini’s challenging leaps and ever-increasing vocal ascendancy with great power and ease. She was fierce in her telling of Turandot’s fears (the rape of her ancestor in this very palace, “In questa reggia”) and ferocious in her determination to remain solitary by imposing three deadly riddles (“Straniero, ascolta”). Yet Graham also showed vulnerability in her softened plea to her father the Emperor, begging him not to have her marry (“Figlio cel Cielo!”).

Equally determined in his voice and stance was the young tenor Christopher Jackson in his local debut as the heroic prince. Jackson’s was an intriguing interpretation. While he is tall and arresting, his Calaf is gentler than expected, his voice almost crooning when Turandot is cruelest. He is also a tenor who knows the impact of singing softly, delivering nuance over noise. His musical solving of the riddles was exciting, and he sang Puccini’s great signature tune “Nessun dorma” (Let no one sleep) with power and authority.

The opera also contains characters who try to keep Turandot and Calaf apart: Timur, the prince’s dissenting father, and Liù, his faithful servant. Bass Kirk Eichelberger was a bit of luxe casting (he will be one of the leads in Festival’s Faust next month), his voice rich and commanding. Soprano Rebecca Sjöwall sang a lovely and limpid Liù, making her opening plea to Calaf (“Signore, ascolta!”) beautifully modulated and her closing suicide before Turandot (“Tanto amore segreto”) deeply affecting.

Abetting this contest of wills is Ping, Pang, and Pong, a trio of Italian commedia dell’arte characters who, absurdly yet adroitly, are part of the action. Baritone Igor Vieira, tenor Adam Flowers, and tenor Michael Mendelsohn were wonderfully animated hecklers, procurers, and torturers. And they sang Puccini’s nostalgic reverie “O mondo, o mondo” (Oh, world, oh, world) with fine style and grace.

Praiseworthy ChorusesOne of the dominating features of this opera, though, is the chorus. Savage in its glee for an execution (“Die, yes die!”), reverent in its obeisance to the moon (“Why is its rising delayed?”), patronizing to its Emperor (“May he live ten thousand years!”), and ecstatic at Calaf’s winning the riddles (“You are the reward of his daring!”), this group sang with vigorous variety, earning cheers throughout the evening. Likewise, the chorus — a mix of 11 girls and six boys — made a memorable moment in their solemn singing of how Turandot’s lack of love confounds the seasons, “La sui monti dell’Est” (Over the eastern mountains).

In an auspicious bit of casting, Ted Weis was the Mandarin (Dr. Weis was one of the founders of Festival Opera nearly 20 years ago), and tenor Jonathan Nadel was a most imperial-sounding Emperor.

These large forces and this extremely complex score can achieve their potential only by keen leadership. Maestro Bryan Nies accomplished this, and more. Here is a true opera conductor who vigorously leads his large orchestra while emphatically supporting his singers throughout Puccini’s intricate passages. His percussion section deserves special mention for its colorful clangor of drums, timpani, gongs, and bells.

Production director Frédéric Boulay is commended for his smooth coordination of Peter Crompton’s opulent settings (vermillion temples and golden dragons), Patrick Hajduk’s highly effective lighting (dappled facades and moonlit niches), Alexae Visel’s costumes (in stunning blacks and silver), Denise Gutierrez’s ornate wigs and makeup, and Mark Foehringer’s sensuous choreography. Also to be praised is the sensitive stage direction of David Cox, who made this near-incredible story come alive.

The remaining challenge in producing Puccini’s opera is its unfinished finale. Stricken by throat cancer and dying of sudden heart failure, he left behind only sketches of his intentions. Thus the all-important scene of Turandot’s transformation through love was left to his fellow composer Franco Alfano. And while Alfano utilizes Puccini’s major themes, the results simply don’t have the same drive, energy, and detail of orchestration.

Puccini did say that he wanted to end his opera with a statement of love, with an onstage Buddha surrounded by masses of flowers. Well, Festival Opera comes close to that. This audience left with great smiles of deep satisfaction.

James Keolker is a professor of opera studies at the Fromm Institute at the University of San Francisco and is the author of an award-winning book on Puccini and his contemporaries.