Florida Grand Opera opens season with lavish, richly sung “Turandot”
Florida Grand Opera opened its new season Saturday with one of its finest performances in recent years, an energetic, eloquently sung and lavishly staged production of Puccini’s Turandot.
Gone were the minimalist sets, frequently mediocre singers and bizarre stage direction that dominated last year’s productions. Instead, in front of a dressed-to-the-nines audience at the Arsht Center, the curtain rose on an elaborate scene of ancient Beijing, dominated by a fanged dragon and bathed in blood-red light, as the orchestra struck up the opening bars of what was to be a musically compelling evening.
The opera tells the story of the beautiful, man-hating princess Turandot who requires her parade of princely suitors to answer three riddles. If they succeed, they win her hand. If they fail, they lose their heads. On stage Saturday, but discreet enough to not be obvious, were rows of heads on stakes. The young Prince Calaf ignores the pleas his father and the devoted slave girl Liù and rings the gong to take up Turandot’s challenge. During the opening scene, the executioners sharpen their blades, giving off sparks, on a giant stone wheel.
Much of the credit for the performance’s success lay in the pit, where the conductor Ramon Tebar drove the music and action forward all evening, providing a lot of the opera’s propulsive force. Rarely in recent years has the FGO orchestra provided such an energetic, technically polished performance. The orchestra brought out Puccini’s delicate colors and clanking pseudo-Chinese textures. The brass played tremendously the entire night, with weighted, shining tone that never become crude or overpowering at moments such as the riddle scene and the opera’s brassy ending.
For the role of Turandot, FGO cast the soprano Lise Lindstrom who sang the role with great success last year at the Metropolitan Opera and this season will sing it at Milan’s La Scala, where the opera received its premiere in 1926.
Lindstrom has a huge voice that gives her the ability to sing the role’s high notes without the stridency some singers bring to the role. She was appropriately icy–without ever being hard on the ears–in In questa reggia, where she tells the story of her female ancestor who had been murdered by a man, explaining her current hatred for the gender. And she managed Turandot’s transformation effectively, with her powerful voice becoming sweet and tender in her final duet with Calaf.
Turandot contains one of the world’s most famous arias, Nessun dorma, which, like Pagliacci’s Vesti la guibba, is one of those melodies familiar to people who know nothing about opera. Luciano Pavarotti made the aria his calling card, and those familiar with Pavarotti’s interpretation will find a different, but still highly effective performance at FGO’s production from the New York-born tenor Frank Porretta.
Porretta brought a dark, throaty sound, a muscular voice that–after he warmed up–carried easily over the orchestra. His Nessun dorma emphasized power and determination, rather than the swaggering self confidence others bring to the aria. And earlier in the opera, his burly voice achieved a gentle warmth in Non piangere, Liu, as he urged the slave girl to continue to protect his father.
As the slave girl Liù, the Cuban-American soprano–and clear local favorite–Elizabeth Caballero gave a meltingly effective vocal performance. The role is not one of grand passion but of gentle, self-sacrificing love, and Caballero had the right voice for the part. In the aria Signore, ascolta, where she begs Calaf not to risk his head for Turandot, her warm, middle-range tones and floating high notes made for a moving plea to the prince.
If anything was undistinguished about the production, it was the acting, which seemed stiff and old-fashioned, with lots of stock gestures and stand-and-sing moments. The ending of the opera—completed by Franco Alfano as the final scene was left unfinished at Puccini’s death— is a challenging one to bring off, since the romantic duet and triumphant close celebrate the impending marriage of Calaf with a serial executioner who had presided over the torture and suicide of the slave girl who had protected his father. While Turandot has been changed and softened, it’s still a tough one to accept. While vocally the two singers brought off the love duet, dramatically they still seemed miles apart.
As the royal ministers and comic relief team Ping, Pong and Pang, the baritone Jonathan G. Michie, tenor James Barbato and tenor Daniel Shirley brought a cynical edge to the performance without descending into low comedy. Their Act II lament for their homes–before they became Turandot’s ministers of execution—was a moment of great vocal beauty, enhanced by the richly colored playing of the orchestra.
The chorus—itself not a particularly likeable bunch that alternately calls for mercy and roars for blood—handled its important musical role with precision and vocal power, providing a lot of the on-stage energy. As Calaf’s father, King Timur, the bass-baritone Kevin Langan brought dignity and an imposing, focused voice to the role.
Florida Grand Opera’s Turandot repeats Nov. 16, 19, 21, 24 and 27 at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami and Dec. 2 and 4 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. fgo.org; 305-854-7890.
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Sun Nov 14, 2010
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