Monday, April 15, 2013
Opera review: The Dallas Opera’s opulent Turandot dazzles with glorious spectacle
In this macabre fairy tail, reason clashes with emotion, but ultimately love conquers all.
The Dallas Opera’s production of Turandot exemplifies what is meant by the term grand opera. The costuming, the set, the lighting, the voices are all spectacular and there is no doubt that it is pleasing to the eyes and to the ears. Dallas Opera has every right to brag about this production. It is beautiful.
Is it a flawless production? No. But the strengths overshadow any weaknesses.
The story centers on a Princess who will not marry anyone unless they are able to answer three riddles. Those who are unable to are decapitated. Prince Calaf falls in love upon seeing her and strikes a gong which indicates his intentions to wed her. To her dismay he is able to answer the three questions posed. Upon seeing her dismay, he offers her a riddle: If she’s able to learn his name by dawn he will give up his own life. Cue Nessum Dorma, which is perhaps one of the most famous if not the most famous musical composition of any opera.
Turandot is, in essence, a macabre fairy tale in which reason clashes with emotion. Eventually love conquers all. Turandot has her reasons as to why she wants to avoid love and marriage but the audience doesn’t learn the why until much later on. She comes across as a cold, emotionless, cruel princess. Calaf is a man that is rash and guided by his emotions. His impulsive decisions bring about the death of his slave Liu who was very much in love with her master. She’s the only one to admit she knows his name and the Princess, desperate to avoid the marriage, orders her tortured. Liu takes her own life instead.
Allen Charles Kelin, who is the Production Designer, is a genius. He is responsible for the entire visual look of the production.
The set of Turandot has been around for quite a few years and every time it is brought out it still impresses. This is my third time to have seen this set and it still thrills when the curtain is raised. An enormous sculpted Dragon dominates the stage. The tail of the creature serves as a ramp and its claw holds an enormous orb from which Turandot first appears. It is monumental in scale, and though the crimson colors seemed to have faded slightly over the years it’s still breathtaking in its complexity, richness, and sheer magnitude.
The costumes are opulent. The Dallas Opera shop constructed the breathtakingly detailed clothing. When this opera premiered in 1926 there had been a fascination with Oriental designs in Europe for a couple of centuries. Chinoiserie, meaning Chinese-esque, had been popular in Europe for quite some time. Though the opera is set in Bejing, the costuming reflects this European interpretation of classical Chinese design. The ornamentation of the costuming is superimposed onto the design and cut of European fashion. This hybrid adds to the mysterious and magical qualities of the production and is gasp-inducing in its beauty.
Marie Barrett’s lighting design is rich, varied and able to capture the feeling of dawn light and the mystery of night. The only flaw in the lighting isn’t in the design but it is in the operation of the follow spots. The follow spot didn’t always follow on time and would at times leave the singers in the dark ambient light. A few errors in timing would be forgiven but it happened with too much frequency not to comment.
Marco Zembelli understands the lushness of the Puccini score. He is perfectly suited to conduct romantic scores and excels in this area. He knows how to make an orchestra swell in emotion. This said, Act 1 of the opera is musically choppy. The transitions aren’t smooth and the jumps from soft to loud are staccato. It’s as if the orchestra isn’t paying attention to his direction. Act 2 and Act 3 are played beautifully with the required oceanic swells of the strings that reflect the intense feelings of the characters stage and will bring the audience to tears.
Garnett Bruce as the Stage Director has his hands full. This opera has many choral passages and employs dozens of performers. His stage pictures and the movements of the crowds are very well done. Where he falters is in the more quiet scenes with just a few of the characters on stage. The special relationship between the characters can convey much of the subtext, yet his blocking in many of these scenes doesn’t add anything. There is much unmotivated wandering on stage on the part of some of the performers.
There are several instances in which the action on stage does not match the action given in the lyrics. An example: If the chorus reverently sings “We bow down to you”, they should be bowing down and not just standing.
Vocally the production is top notch. The voices are sublime. But it is in the way the performers use their voices where there are inconsistencies.
Liu, as performed by Hei-Kyung Hong steals the show. From the moment she steps onstage to the very last moment, she remains in character, reacts and is a three dimensional character. Her soprano is exquisite and laden with much feeling.
Lise Lindstrom as Turnadot has the requisite harshness in her soprano to impress as the cold and calculating princess. When she allows her emotions to take hold later on in the opera, her tone softens, reflecting the change in her character. It is evident she understands Turandot’s complexity. Unfortunately for her, though she tried, there isn’t much chemistry between her and Antonello Palombi who plays Calaf.
Antonello Palombi has a stunning voice. He has the requisite “cry” sound in his singing to effectively convey Puccini’s music. Based on his voice alone he seems like a perfect Calaf. But, this isn’t a recording, it’s a live performance. The problem? His characterization doesn’t serve the requirements of the role. Calaf falls in love with Turnadot upon sight. This love should have a purity and near innocence to it. He plays it as if he is trying to “score” her. This undermines the intent of his character and this opera where love conquers all. There are very few subtleties in his performance. He either is loud or soft, but volume alone doesn’t express an emotion. Nessum Dorma is the powerhouse moment of this opera. It requires much subtlety and I am glad to say that he does the aria justice. It is obvious he thought the melody line through and the meaning of the lyrics, and for that moment he is completely immersed in the character. Unfortunately, as it ended the character vanishes.
Christian Van Horn as Timur, Calaf’s father, makes his Dallas Opera debut and he impresses immensely. He is saddled with heavy make-up and very long hair and beard covering much of his face, yet he is able to fully express a range of emotions that makes his father’s anguish palpable. Vocally he commands.
Jonathan Beyer as Ping, one of the advisers, plays the role with a level of complexity I seldom have seen before. He fleshes out the character with his wonderful voice. The only problem is that at times he seemed a little lost on stage, giving the impression as if he wasn’t sure where he was supposed to be standing and wandered for no reason.
Joseph Hu plays Pang, another adviser, and he does it with much gusto. Of the three adviser roles he is able to capture the comedic element required by the character. Rounding out the trio of advisers is Daniel Montenegro as Pong. His tenor is quite pleasant but he lacks some of the energy required for the part.
Steven Haal plays Emperor Altoum and even though the role is small, he makes his presence felt. Vocally he captures the quality of the character. Kristin Tallet Bittick and Lisa Huffaker play handmaidens. Both deliver vocally and have good stage presence.
Jay Gardner is the voice of the Prince of Persia. With all the business on stage, and the powerhouse performers singing, this small role requires someone who can cut through all the action and get your attention. He does it marvelously.
Another role that is usually not very memorable because it’s small, but became memorable in this production, is that of the Mandarin played by Ryan Kuster. Expertly sung, his character fascinates. He completely embodies the role and makes his presence felt. Bravo.
The chorus has a very important role in this opera and serves as an additional character. Just when I think Alexander Rom can’t top himself in his direction of the chorus, he manages to outdo himself. Melinda Cotton is the Children’s Chorus Master and brings out exquisite performances from all the children. Chorally, this is by far the best of the five times I’ve seen this opera live over the years.
Turandot is Puccini’s last opera. He never lived to see it perform. He considered it the culmination of his career, and indeed it is. Because of the spectacular nature of this opera, the fascinating storyline, and the masterful score and lyrics, it’s hard to mess up this opera as long as you have the right budget to mount it properly, have strong singers, and a well-trained orchestra. Dallas Opera’s production has all three elements in place. Was this the best Turnadot ever mounted? No. But it is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It is truly grand and well worth attending. This is the perfect opera to introduce new people to this art form for it is very accessible and spectacular.
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