Review: Virginia Opera’s “Turandot” is a strikingly unforgettable performance

by M.D. Ridge

March 18, 2017

Virginia Opera’s new production of “Turandot” at the Harrison Opera House is a treat for eye and ear, due in no small part to its brilliant director, Lillian Groag. Her inventive staging, costumes and set design bring out all the drama, passion and pageantry of the much-loved opera. Before the curtain even rises, the menacing executioner parades slowly across the apron, sword in hand, to behead a garish red and black mask – and you’re hooked.Soprano Kelly Cae Hogan sings the title role of the imperious Princess Turandot, daughter of the emperor of China. Any suitor who can’t answer her three riddles will be beheaded. Hogan’s voice is both powerful and musical; she makes believable the icy princess’s fear of losing herself in marriage.

Tenor Derek Taylor sings Calaf, who sees Turandot at the latest beheading and falls instantly in love with her. One wishes Taylor’s rather wooden acting matched his vocal passion, though his voice is sometimes overwhelmed by the orchestra of Richmond Symphony players under the direction of conductor John DeMain.Ricardo Lugo’s huge bass perfectly fits Timur, the blind, banished king of Tartary and Calaf’s long-lost father. Virginia Beach native Danielle Pastin is Liu, the slave girl who has cared faithfully for Timur because of her unspoken love for Calaf.Liu’s passionate, beautifully sung refusal to betray Calaf and her unwavering loyalty and love in spite of torture is key to Turandot’s eventual change of heart. Ping (bass-baritone Keith Brown), Pang (tenor Ian McEuen) and Pong (the lively Joseph Gaines) are the court ministers who, tired of the endless bloodshed, reminisce about their peaceful homes and try to dissuade the determined Calaf from accepting Turandot’s deadly challenge. Groag gives the trio dimension as individuals as well as comic relief.Tenor John McGuire, of the Christopher Newport University music faculty, is an imposing but sympathetic Emperor who would like to address Calaf as his son instead of another sacrifice to Turandot’s fears. Baritone Andrew Paulson is the mysterious Mandarin.The large chorus, directed by Adam Bell, begins rather raggedly but soon gains cohesion. The pure voices of the Virginia Opera’s Children’s Chorus are a captivating counterpoint to the adults’ bloodshed.Kyle Lang’s unusual choreography, especially the executioner and her four dancers, provided an alien strangeness.Lighting designer Driscoll Otto’s projections – a ring of fire in the sky; the looming, cratered moon; the lapping waters of the blue lake at Ping’s faraway home, the starry night sky – together with Groag’s minimalist set and skillful direction give the Harrison’s restricted stage a sense of great space and wonder. Liu’s dead body lies bathed in blood-red light, from which she rises when the spirit of the Persian prince comes to lead her away; it’s extraordinarily effective.One simple but telling detail is the stripes of colored makeup in a band across the eyes from temple to temple, delineating caste in a glance: the executioner has yellow eye stripes; her dancers have blood-red ones. The children’s are blue; the mob’s are black; Turandot’s are blinding white.Puccini died after finishing the first two acts of “Turandot,” leaving 36 pages of sketches not fully orchestrated, to be fleshed out by Franco Alfano. This may account for the Turandot’s too-quick transformation from ice princess to passionate lover. A former Italian diplomat had given Puccini a music box that played Chinese melodies; one was the folk song “Mo Li Hua (Jasmine Flower),” sung by the children’s chorus in the first act, then associated with the princess.This “Turandot” was a strikingly unforgettable performance, bringing Puccini’s music to breathtaking life.




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