A Magnificent Turandot to End the Season

 United StatesUnited States Puccini, Turandot: Soloists, Ramon Tebar (conductor), Renaut Doucet (stage director), Andre Barbe (set and costumes). Cincinnati Opera, Music Hall, Cincinnati, OH. 25.7.2015 (RDA)

Photo courtesy Cincinnati Opera
Photo courtesy Cincinnati Opera

Puccini’s Turandot is the composer’s last opera, left unfinished, after the composer sat on his laurels for several years following the premiere of Il Trittico. He was both a procrastinator subject to bouts of depression and, contradictorily, an obsessive workaholic when he was “hooked” by a project. The latter seems not to have been the case with Turandot, which he kept putting back on his bottom drawer again and again. The opera was completed after Puccini’s death and given a much deserved happy ending by Franco Alfano, a fact that greatly upset conductor Arturo Toscanini, who gave the 1926 La Scala premiere. Legend has it that, during the first performance, he stopped at the point in the score just before the Alfano completion began, put down his baton, and turned to face the stunned audience: “This is where the Maestro put down his pen!” and promptly walked off.

The opera has much to recommend it, even if it does not reach the impassioned heights of the Giacosa/Illica libretti and the sweeping melodies that make Puccini’s Boheme, Butterfly and Tosca perennial favorites. What Turandot does have is sonorities unusual for both Puccini and for the time of composition, including passages that flirt with the then new-fangled polytonality of Debussy and Ravel, mixed up with exotic scales and post-Romantic harmonies. When combined with the composer’s fluency in transitioning from rhapsodic arias to complex ensembles (such as the stirring end of the first half of Act I), a different Puccini is revealed. Sometimes the score achieves an epic sweep never heard in the composer’s previous works. One can just imagine what Puccini could have gone on to write, had he not succumbed in his sixties to mouth cancer.

The magnificent production that closed the Cincinnati Opera’s 2015 season is a joint effort of the opera companies of Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Utah, and Seattle. The results are splendid, with a unit set by director Renaud Doucet that easily transforms itself into several locations, and occupies virtually the whole expanse of the Music Hall stage, ideal for the director’s deft deployment of principals and chorus. The elaborate costumes function not only as apparel but as stage decoration, in this visually compelling show.

In her Cincinnati debut, soprano Marcy Stonikas was impressive in the title role, a vocal minefield that includes the entrance aria, “In questa reggia,” the treacherous Riddle scene, and the aftermath in acts II and III. Ms. Stonikas sounded terrific throughout, her large dramatic soprano cutting through anything in its path—with a shiny silvery timbre just right for the Princess with a soul of ice.

Nora Ansellem, also in a much anticipated debut, possesses a luscious lyric-spinto sound ideally suited to the role of Liu. In both her arias, “Signore ascolta” and “Tu, che di gel sei cinta,” her emotionally-charged singing threatened to highjack the show.

Tenor Frank Porretta stepped in for an ailing colleague, acquitting himself vocally and dramatically with assurance, in a heartfelt “Non piangere, Liu” and a splendid “Nessun dorma.” He then held his own in the notorious “vocal mano a mano” of the Riddle scene, matching his stage partner decibel for decibel.

In yet another auspicious first Cincinnati appearance, bass Andrea Mastroni combined appropriately dark tone with patrician and touching singing in the role of the blind Timur. Ping, Pang and Pong were in good hands with the trio of Julius Ahn and Joseph Hu, tenors, and baritone Jonathan Beyer.

Both the cast and the superb Cincinnati Opera Chorus (trained to perfection by Henry Venanzi, now in his 41st year with the company) worked well with the inspired, idiomatic and flexible support of conductor Ramon Tebar, leading members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the pit.

Following Il trovatore (that I missed while on vacation), an updated Don Pasquale with mixed results, and the world premiere of the promising Morning Star, this Turandot brought the 2015 season to a terrific close.

Rafael de Acha

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