Florida Grand Opera opens season with lavish, richly sung “Turandot”

By David Fleshler

Lise Lindstrom in the title role of the Chinese princess in Florida Grand Opera's "Turandot." Photo: Gaston de Cardenas

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.

Elizabeth Caballero (Liu), Frank Porretta (Calaf) and Kevin Langan (Timur) in Florida Grand Opera's "Turandot." Photo: Gaston de Cardenas

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.

Posted in Performances

10 Responses to “Florida Grand Opera opens season with lavish, richly sung “Turandot””

  1. Posted Nov 14, 2010 at 3:55 pm by Wild Eyed Opera Lover

    What a great start to the season! The principal voices were perfection. The review is accurate as to the orchestra, which was outstanding, and the dramatic set.

  2. Posted Nov 14, 2010 at 5:55 pm by William Bart Birdsall

    This was a nice performance, although from the time I heard Lindstom in this role in Orlando to now I think her voice has become steely and a bit squally. I have a feeling she’s going to ruin her voice if she keeps singing this. It was one of FGO’s better shows in recent years. The direction could have been better, and I think it was directed better in 2004. FGO has the best Turandot sets and costumes around so they should revive this show every few years. I think Turandot usually sells well. Having names that I’ve heard of before made me decide to go. I know names do not guarantee a great performance, but experienced singers have a certain amount of finish to their singing and acting.

  3. Posted Nov 14, 2010 at 5:58 pm by William Bart Birdsall

    Forgot to say that I loved Langan! Best voice on the stage! Caballero was good too!

  4. Posted Nov 17, 2010 at 2:31 pm by rafael cruz

    you forgot to mention the wonderful work of the Chorus and Supers!!

    The guards on the show were amazing!!

  5. Posted Nov 23, 2010 at 12:52 pm by Ossie Alfonzo

    I thought the overall performance was very good. The set, the orchestra and the director did a great job. Lindstrom has a very good voice that flows but I feel that she tired some in the final act. She needs to grow into the role. She will be a great Turandot in ten years. It might be a little too soon for her. She could damage her cords if she keeps repeating this role. Caballero was steady, strong and lovely throughout the night. But, Porretta was non-existent. Especially in the peanut gallery, his voice did not project well and was over shadowed by everyone most of the night. He was not heard at all on his duets with Turandot. Even Ping, Pang & Pong were heard clearer. Only in Nessun dorma was he heard somewhat. One aria does not make an opera. Very disappointed in Calaf! Same thing with most of the tenors last year, all they think of is power & open throat which diminishes the beauty, color and timbre.

  6. Posted Nov 25, 2010 at 12:40 am by Opera Fan

    I thought the sets, costumes and orchestra were terrific. I also thought that Lindstrom’s huge voice was the star of the show. I could barely hear Porretta at times, but he did an adequate job on the showpiece “Nessun Dorma”. Caballero was a crowd favorite, but to be honest I could not figure out why. She has a sweet voice but she seemed to run out of air a few times, most noticeably when it mattered most – at the end of “Signore Ascolta”. Unfortunately she fell short of the very high bar set in the last production in 2004 by Elena Kelessidi.

  7. Posted Nov 25, 2010 at 10:42 am by Dave R.

    Are we really judging opera singers by how loud they sing? Caballero has a beautiful voice, perfect for the part, with wonderful legato lines. Lindstrom’s voice went from icy in the second act to beautiful and soft late in the third act, appropriate since the nature of her character changes, too. I’ll lay off Porretta since he was apparently sick. Langan: what a beautiful voice! I haven’t heard a bass like that at FGO in a long time.

    I’ve also never heard the FGO chorus and orchestra sound better, and I agree, Tebar must get the credit for that. I’m not a fan of FGO at all, but if even half of its productions were as good as this one, I’d change my opinion.

  8. Posted Nov 29, 2010 at 4:22 pm by Juan Morales

    I attended the performance Saturday night and I have to agree with some of the earlier comments. In my opinion:
    First – Lindstrom – I was not very impressed with her. Yes, she has a huge voice, but I was sitting in the balcony and could not hear her low notes and felt like she was out of air. I also felt she “chopped off” the end of her phrases but I am thinking that might have a been a directorial decision to make her sound more icy-princess-like. Like somebody else mentioned I did find her voice a bit shrilly at times – perhaps she is singing too many Turandots and it’s taking a toll.
    Second – Porretta – I always sit in the balcony and Saturday night was the first night that made me question if singers were miked and if there was something wrong with his. I could hear everybody (even the Emperor) fine but yet the orchestra kept drowning Porretta out all evening, and at times I thought he was going to bust a lung trying to sing over it. Which was a shame because I thought he had a great voice, whenever I could hear it.
    Third – Caballero – she was amazing!! Someone said she sounded out of breath specially at the end of “Signore ascolta” – don’t know what performance they saw but on Saturday night – that final note floated into the air carrying her heart (and mine) with it. AMAZING!! I am a fan for life!!
    My only complaint is that although I realize this production was made for the Miami-Dade County Auditorium, FGO forgets there are people sitting in the balcony and the sight lines are not the same. Consistently I see productions where important events happen too far back and too far up on stage and the balcony has no idea what’s going on. In this production from where I sat, I could only see the bottom 1/4th of the pearl – which means those sitting above me – didn’t see the pearl at all! Please during the design process, have someone sit up there before you decide what happens where on stage.

    Thank you

  9. Posted Dec 05, 2010 at 11:20 pm by Giovanni Abrate

    I enjoyed the performance in Fort Lauderdale on Dec. 4th. The tenor does wonders with his voice and gave a fine performance. Liu was very effective in her role and the tone and voice modulation were first rate. Lindstrom is a fine Turandot and I thought she did well in the final transformation and coped easily with Alfano’s tessitura. The choreography was good, with nice touches of Beijing Opera movements: quite fitting! My only regret is that the FGO did not try and stage the original Alfano ending (the so-called Alfano 1 – even though it was actually Alfano’s second attempt at the opera’s finale). The Alfano 1 is the ending that Alfano prepared with the help of Puccini’s sketches, Tonio Puccini’s advice and with the librettisti’s comments relative to Puccini’s intentions with the final love duet. Unfortunately, Toscanini butchered this finale and all we hear these days is this uneven, incomplete version, made rough by his cuts. I have heard the Alfano 1 ending and, when properly performed, it is a marked improvement on the standard finale, lacking the unevenness caused by Toscanini’s cuts and, in fact, so much closer to the comments that Puccini made in his final notes. Incidentally, my grandfather was a conductor and a cousin of Puccini’s, I consider myself an admirer and a scholar of Puccini music. I hope that in a future production, the FGO will stage the Alfano 1 ending and give this great opera a finale that does it justice.

  10. Posted Dec 29, 2010 at 1:06 pm by Opera Lover

    My thoughts are the same as most. Good job with everyone except Calaf. Looked like his veins were gona pop with the force he was giving. No wonder he was not heard in the balcony. Opera singers are not judged by how loud they sing but on how even the clarity of their tone is within the different registers. But in order for them to be judged they need to a least be heard. Calaf was not heard all night with the exception of some moments in nessun dorma. Same thing with Manon–the tenor’s voice was so large he could not be heard and sounded like a baritone with some high notes and no timbre. Are there any good tenors out there that we can bring to the FGO?

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Sun Nov 14, 2010
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