Local Arts Reviews


Bass Concert Hall, Nov. 21

On a haunting, moonlit night, a cowed crowd gathers to hear the condemnation of the prince of Persia -- doomed for failing to answer three riddles correctly, riddles that are the keys to winning Princess Turandot's hand in marriage. But she is an icy princess, forswearing love to avenge a centuries-old hurt committed on another Chinese princess, an ancestor barbarized by Tartars. Many men have come to try their hand at solving the riddles of Turandot, and many heads have been raised on long poles overlooking Peking's central square as a warning to future suitors to cease this folly.

Giacomo Puccini's opera Turandot is tinged with darkness -- the action takes place mostly at night, a brilliant moon often the sole source of light over a forbidding square more dungeon than public gathering place. The Chinese citizens that people the story are frightened of their retributive, cold princess. And death lurks everywhere, as glassy-eyed heads fixed upon poles and in the crouched, crumpled figures of the aged and exiled king of Tartary, Timur, and his faithful servant, Liu. One man, Calaf, Timur's son, stands bold and confident. Spying the Princess Turandot, he bangs -- and breaks -- the gong that signals another suitor's desire to solve the deadly riddles. His quest for her heart is the stuff of legend and, in this Austin Lyric Opera production, was an opportunity to hear some exquisite music excellently performed.

Puccini's opera may be dark, but it is also gorgeous, with a lush, soaring score. The choral passages are magnificent; the leads' arias -- including what must be the best-known tenor aria in all opera, "Nessun dorma" ("No one must sleep") -- are gorgeous. And they were beautifully rendered on Friday night. Tonio di Paolo's Calaf was deserving of the audience's cheers for the simplicity of his "Nessun dorma," tinged with emotion. As Liu, Barbara Divis provided an elegant foil with haunting refrains of her own: in Act I, "Signore, ascolta," a gentle plea for Calaf to listen to one who has loved him from afar; in Act III, "Principessa, l'amore," the cry that, as she faces torture and death, love will give her strength. Indeed, love triumphs in the end, a powerful, hopeful conclusion after so much darkness.

Of course, Turandot is not all grim beheadings and lonely supplication -- there is the commedia dell'arte trio of Ping, Pang, and Pong, masked ministers prone to dramatic warnings, loudly barked orders, and the occasional mask-slip, allowing the audience to see the more human side to these bureaucrats that dream of quieter times in their far-away hometowns. Of the three, Ping Yu (an excellent Rigoletto in 2002) provided comic, over-the-top civil servility, as well as calmer, tender yearnings for a good day's fishing far from the demanding princess.

As Turandot, Claire Primrose sang well but was a rather stiff and uncharismatic actress. Whether this had more to do with her aloofness as an ice maiden or her tedious movement, director Christopher Doerr must shoulder the responsibility for turning an explosion of romance into a rather dull affair. Doerr blocked the leads in repeated, excessively long and awkward upstage crosses; he permitted an inexplicable lack of eye contact between Turandot and Calaf, even as their stormy relationship unfolded; and he seemed to have no idea where to put the members of the chorus, often simply lining them downstage or crowding them together where they masked the movements of the principals. Granted Doerr had to work with Peter Dean Beck's unimaginative, rather cramped set (created for Atlanta Opera), yet the passion of this love story seemed to evaporate in poorly conceived stage pictures.

The director seemed more attuned to the music than the staging, and here ALO truly won hearts. In addition to the beautiful solos from the principals, the orchestra, under the baton of the limitless Peter Bay, sounded fantastic; and the ALO chorus, led by chorus master Marc David Erck, never sounded better. The sweeping final moment, given to the people -- the chorus and orchestra -- boomed the joy of a brighter future, one of potent, healing love.

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Austin Lyric Opera, Giacomo Puccini, Turandot, Christopher Doerr, Tonio di Paolo, Barbara Divis, Ping Yu, Claire Primrose, Peter Dean Beck, Peter Bay, ALO chorus, Marc David Erck

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