Sunday, June 22, 2003

Singers bring vitality to spare 'Turandot'

Opera review

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A spectacular cast, an impressive production and an intriguing new ending to Puccini's Turandot launched Cincinnati Opera's summer season on Thursday.

Puccini died before completing Turandot's final act, as he struggled to find a solution for its unsatisfactory libretto. In its Midwest premiere, Luciano Berio's new Turandot ending was more restrained than the familiar "happy ending" by Franco Alfano. Wagnerian in spirit, it afforded interesting dramatic opportunities - the lovers related to each other more realistically and Turandot's vulnerability was more exposed, for instance.

But it dragged, and its lean orchestration (with lots of xylophone), dissonances, motivic style and other modern elements came as a jolt. At the end, everyone paraded off Music Hall's stage, and the music died away, like Debussy.

It contradicted the searing drama that had unfolded before. As Turandot, the Chinese princess who beheads suitors who can't answer three riddles, Eva Urbanova was chilling and in command. Her big aria, "In questa reggia," was riveting; her powerful high notes sliced like knives, but her pianos were compelling, too.

Equally impressive was tenor Jon Villars (Calaf), who stepped in for Gabriel Sade three weeks ago. His voice was youthful, powerful and effortless. Set against a surreal landscape, his "Nessun dorma" drew cheers from the full house of 2,852, although it emerged as more of an anthem than a "romanza."

The evening's most complete performance came from Measha Brueggergosman, who as the slave Liu, was touchingly sympathetic and sang with color and pathos. Her two scenes were deeply emotional; her phrasing and seamless acting were truly extraordinary.

In other roles, Dean Peterson was a strong and convincing Timur. As the Emperor, Ji Hoon Kim took a few moments to find the pitch. (Operagoers in the gallery couldn't see him on his 40-foot high throne.)

The humorous Ping, Pang and Pong (Marian Pop, Andreas Conrad and Mark Panuccio) rolled around in bigger-than-life, Alice-in-Wonderland-style costumes. Their reflective Act II trio was staged with nostalgia and whimsy, in one of the evening's most memorable scenes.

Director Peter Rothstein's stylized Turandot rolled in and out of the stark set (a joint production of eight opera companies) on scaffolding platforms. Rothstein's crowd scenes were well managed, but stringing the chorus across the stage front in Act I was a poor decision, resulting in ragged singing. Otherwise, the chorus (including children) sang winningly.

Stunning backdrop projections (John Boesche) and vivid lighting (Thomas C. Hase) heightened the drama.

One of the evening's stars was conductor Alessandro Siciliani, who was a thrilling interpreter of Puccini (and Berio), and aided the singers expertly. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra responded with lush, magical playing.


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