Review: Virginia Opera’s terrific ‘Turandot’ heads to Richmond

Virginia Opera’s remarkable production of Puccini’s last opera, “Turandot” eschews pageantry for great singing, brilliant characterizations.

Final scene, Virginia Opera production of Puccini's "Turandot." (Photo courtesy Virginia Opera's Facebook page)

WASHINGTON, March 28, 2017 – Virginia Opera’s current production of Puccini’s final opera, “Turandot” (1926), wisely does away with lavish, expensive sets and props, instead putting the focus where it belongs: on great singing and brilliant characterizations, courtesy of a remarkably fine cast.

Traveling from its home base in Norfolk, Virginia to George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax City last weekend, this fine production filled most of the available seats, auguring well for its upcoming final weekend in Richmond, Virginia’s historic capital city.

Calàf (Derek Taylor) and Turandot (Kelly Cae Hogan) negotiating peaceful co-existence in Puccini’s “Turandot.” (Image courtesy Virginia Opera’s Facebook page)

“Turandot,” is Puccini’s musical take on the twisted tale of the opera’s eponymous, mythical Chinese princess, who may be secretly starved for love but certainly doesn’t act like it. In revenge for the abuse and murder of a female ancestor, she professes a hatred of all men, and exorcises her inner demons in an equally cruel way. Turandot systematically decapitates every princely suitor who attempts to win her hand after he proves unable to solve a trio of challenging riddles she proposes. She’s actually a bit like Sweeney Todd on steroids.

Legions of Puccini fans already know that “Turandot” marked the grand finale of Puccini’s storied career. The composer, a habitual smoker, battled throat cancer near the end, but ultimately succumbed to a heart attack before he could put the finishing touches on his last masterpiece.

As a result, the opera’s closing moments end rather abruptly, courtesy of a cautiously conservative finale written by composer Franco Alfano, operating under pressure from the opera’s producers and Arturo Toscanini, the premiere’s designated conductor.

Soprano Kelly Cae Hogan. (Image courtesy Ms. Hogan’s website)

Even though she’s the opera’s title character, Princess Turandot (soprano Kelly Cae Hogan in this production), daughter of Chinese Emperor Altoum, is barely glimpsed in Act I, hovering instead as a dreaded presence, due to her systematic execution of an endless parade of princely suitors. But she catches the eye of the opera’s hero, a war fugitive who is secretly the Tatar Prince Calàf (tenor Derek Taylor).

Hopelessly in love, the “Unknown Prince” demands to next up for Turandot’s riddle challenge.

Both his long-lost father, the aging, exiled former Tatar King Timur (bass Ricardo Lugo) and his trusted servant Liù (soprano Daniele Pastin)—secretly in love with Calàf—try to dissuade him from certain death. Calàf is determined to proceed and succeed, which he does, although that success guarantees some unfortunate collateral damage.

As Turandot, Kelly Cae Hogan is exceptional, portraying her character as nearly devoid of any emotion save for a hatred (and perhaps fear) of men and of the potential loss of her freedom via marriage. Her well-supported, rich soprano voice remains coldly regal until the very end, when a combination of Calàf’s passion and Liù’s unexpected heroism trigger a surprising change of heart in her character, as her exceptional vocal presence warms and blossoms.

Tenor Derek Taylor. (Image courtesy of Mr. Taylor’s website)

As Calàf, admirable tenor Derek Taylor proved in some dramatic respects to be the mirror image of the woman he chose to pursue. Like Turandot, he, too, is single-minded, goal-directed and, for all his passion, oddly cold and methodical as he pursues his dangerous quarry. Like Ms. Hogan, Mr. Taylor also possesses the vocal power to succeed in his high-Romantic, almost Wagnerian role. As a result, an authentic and fiery chemistry quickly develops between this unlikely pair, adding some unexpected Romantic tension to an opera that can sometimes feel to audiences like a two-dimensional, grim fairy tale.

To top off an already fine performance, Mr. Taylor delivered the expected vocal goods with his stirring rendition of this opera’s signature dramatic aria, “Nessun dorma” (roughly, “No one is sleeping”), rousing the entire house upon its dramatic conclusion.

Daniele Pastin was superb as the loyal Liù, who ends up teaching us all a thing or three about loyalty and devotion—a lesson that is not lost on Turandot, either. Ms. Pastin’s earthy soprano delivers a sense of depth and maturity to the proceedings, and her portrayal of this opera’s moral conscience gifted the proceedings with unusual moral authority and gravitas.

Rounding out the quartet of principals, Ricardo Lugo was excellent in the small but important role of Timur, Calàf’s blind and aging father, interpreting it with honor and dignity with his expressive bass virtually radiating age, sorrow and experience.

Courtiers Ping, Pang and Pong. (Image courtesy of Virginia Opera’s Facebook page)

As Shakespeare does in his tragedies, Puccini’s libretto and music offers us some comic interludes in the face of Turandot’s cruelty. The comic relief comes in the form of a trio of court advisors—Ping, Pang and Pong—that seem to leap from the pages of a Gilbert & Sullivan score to scurry about offering warnings to the “Unknown Prince,” but alternating them with please as to the harm his choices may cause.

Enthusiastically sung by baritone Keith Brown, and tenors Ian McEuen and Joseph Gaines respectively, this trio of Chinese bureaucratic flunkies lightens the mood while also providing a touch of political satire to the proceedings.

In production terms, Puccini scored his final opera for a massive orchestra, plenty of colorful percussion and even a small organ part giving this opera massive heft and surprising structural density. Under the baton of conductor John Demain, the Virginia Opera’s orchestra gave this complex score a fine, brilliantly sustained reading.

Virginia Opera’s ninja-like dancers in action in “Turandot.” (Image courtesy Virginia Opera’s Facebook page.

A big hat tip as well to the company’s fine chorus, clearly coached to near-perfection by chorus master Aaron Breid. The choral singing—very important in this opera—was tight, clean, well enunciated and dramatically quite effective.

Minimal sets and simple costumes designed by director Lillian Groag were sufficient to convey importance and social class. Under her stage direction, the power of each individual character as well as that of the peasant chorus gave this production an emotional wallop we’ve actually never seen in more elaborate productions of “Turandot,” a remarkable achievement in our book

We’d be remiss if we didn’t also give an additional hat tip to Choreographer Kyle Lang and his small but excellent quartet of colorfully-clad warrior dancers. They proved you don’t need an entire ballet troupe to create a sense of royal majesty and awe.

(Note: In the original version of this review, we had misidentified the name of this production’s choreographer. Our apologies for the error.)

Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars)

Virginia Opera’s production of Puccini’s “Turandot” concludes its final performances this weekend at Richmond, Virginia’s Dominion Art Center (Carpenter Theatre) on March 31 and April 2, 2017. More information is available via the Dominion Arts Center website. Ticket prices range from $19 to $112. Tickets are available at the Dominion Arts Center and Altria Theater box offices, online via at this link, or by phone at 1-800-514-ETIX (3849).

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