Superb singing, staging highlight Palm Beach Opera’s splendid “Turandot”

By David Fleshler

Stefano La Colla and Alexandra Loutsion in Palm Beach Opera’s “Turandot” Friday at Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. Photo: Bruce Bennett

Puccini’s 1926 opera Turandot contains an aria familiar to many people who have never stepped inside an opera house.

The tenor’s task in “Nessun dorma” is probably not lightened by the awareness that the version most people know is by Pavarotti. But in the Italian tenor Stefano La Colla, who has sung the role of Calaf in the world’s leading houses, Palm Beach Opera found a singer whose golden voice and ringing high notes would do full justice to the aria and the role of the man who conquers Princess Turandot. (The role will be sung Saturday by Hovhannes Ayvazyan.)

Palm Beach Opera’s performance of Puccini’s final work, which opened Friday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, is an impressive spectacle, the opposite of those skimpy productions that leave audience members feeling vaguely fleeced. Sets originally created by Florida Grand Opera (and now owned and rented out by Lyric Opera of Chicago) feature a huge dragon looming over the stage, a brooding moon, giant gong and many details. The stage was alive with dancers, acrobats and scroll-clutching scholars.

But it is to the credit of stage director Keturah Stickann that she used all this activity to enliven the opera without distracting from the drama at its heart, and at crucial moments, she kept the stage action focused firmly on the main characters and the music.

To an unusual extent, she kept the focus on Calaf. In the opening scenes, when as far as anyone else knew, he’s a nobody wandering Beijing, the chorus directs itself to him. When the Prince of Persia —  condemned to death for trying and failing to win Turandot’s hand —  ascends to the place of execution, it is Calaf who accompanies him.

This had the effect of telling the story from Calaf’s point a view, creating an unusually close connection between the audience and the singer.

The focus on Calaf actually began with something of a thud. Turandot has one of the most dramatic openings in opera, with no overture, just a few stark notes before the opera plunges into the action. But this thunderous opening was robbed of its force because the curtain opened with Calaf already seated at the front of the stage, even as the orchestra was still tuning up, a bit of misdirection that diluted the opening’s power.

The American soprano Alexandra Loutsion made an impressive Turandot. Less fierce in her initial scene than others in the role, she sang with tenderness and sorrow in “In questa reggia,” as she described the historical tragedy that led to her hobby of executing male suitors. Her voice was a forceful, well-focused instrument, particularly plush in the lower register. And the greater nuance in that first appearance made the character’s famously implausible change of heart in the last act slightly less unbelievable than usual. (On Saturday the role will be sung by Alexandra LoBianco.)

La Colla’s Calaf was a man of vulnerability and strength. In the opening scene, as he’s pierced by Turandot’s beauty, he sang with a pained intensity. His voice rang with confident authority in the riddle scene, as he dispatched the conundrums that brought his predecessors to the execution block, with outstanding high notes. His “Nessun dorma” was a heroic few minutes of singing, with pinging top notes and assured lines of melody.

As the slave girl Liù, the soprano Leah Crocetto sang with a sweet, lyric voice that suited the role of the modest, self-sacrificing attendant. Her vibrato was often too wide, leaving her tones unfocused. But in her final scene, she sang with passionate, desperate courage as she resisted torture and chose suicide over betraying Calaf. (On Saturday the role will be sung by Anastasia Schegoleva.)

The baritone Zachary Nelson, tenor John McVeigh and tenor Matthew Newlin made an effective trio as the royal ministers Ping, Pang and Pong. Nelson gave an affecting, sorrowful performance as he sang of China’s past and its turbulent present. And the three blended for a smoothly evocative trio as they expressed nostalgia for their homes in some of Puccini’s most achingly effective harmonies.

As Timur, the bass Evgeny Stavinsky brought a richly expressive voice to the role, singing with the patriarchal grandeur of a king who maintains his dignity despite his diminished circumstances. Il Hoon Kim made a gruff and imposing Mandarin. The tenor Duke Kim was a dignified but humane Emperor.

Under chief conductor David Stern, the Palm Beach Opera orchestra did its usual excellent work. The outstanding string section played with transparent delicacy in Puccini’s shimmering harmonies. Soft-edged winds, stark brass and clanging percussion all contributed to bringing out the power and variety of Puccini’s richly colored score.

In the moments leading up to Calaf’s decision to put his life in jeopardy by ringing the gong and attempting to win Turandot, Stern led a surging ensemble performance that gained terrible momentum leading up to that fateful moment.

The chorus in Turandot plays an unusually prominent role, largely as the street mob of Beijing that calls for pity one moment and death the next. The vocalists sang with polished, well-blended tones and brought lusty savagery to their descriptions of Turandot’s machinery of death, pivoting quickly to delicate, ethereal singing as they describe the rising moon.

The masses speak in Palm Beach Opera’s “Turandot.” Photo: Bruce Bennett

The final minutes of Turandot are famously problematic. Puccini died without completing the opera, leaving only sketches for the final scene between Calaf and Turandot. It was finished by the young composer Franco Alfano.

And the action itself is puzzling, as Calaf continues to burn with love for the woman who just presided over the torture and suicide of his devoted slave. Meanwhile, Turandot experiences a 180-degree change of heart and falls in love with Calaf.

But it was a pleasure to hear the voices of La Colla and Loutsion intertwine. And as Loutsion shed her glittering white robe for the plain one underneath, she — more plausibly than most in the role — underwent an emotional transformation, and her particularly luxuriant lower register helped express the newfound tenderness in her character.

Palm Beach Opera presents Turandot 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.; 561-833-7888.

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Sat Jan 25, 2020
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