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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 10 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 32
One good Turandot
Arts & Entertainment
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One good Turandot

Seattle Opera's new Puccini production could hardly be better

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

TURANDOT
SEATTLE OPERA
Through August 18


Both for eye and ear, Seattle Opera's new Turandot is a feast. Partners Renaud Doucet and André Barbe, from Canada, along with lighting designer Guy Simard, have created quite a delicious spectacle out of Puccini's only grand opera. Colors couldn't be richer, with red dominating. And Doucet's choreography adds wonderful motion, giving the whole show a kind of Cirque du Soleil feeling, entirely appropriate to this unique opera. There's not a dull moment.

Puccini used an enlarged orchestra and his best orchestral talents to add exotic, Asian tonalities and colors to his lush melodies. From the very first chords, conductor Asher Fisch generated electric energy from the players. The action, always perfectly in synch with the orchestra, surged forward with infectious buoyancy and gorgeous sounds. Coordination was so perfect that at times the orchestra sounded like an organ, even when the organ wasn't playing. And the Seattle Opera Chorus has never been more active or sounded better. The opera's many crowd scenes featured lots of effective participation from the members of the Chorus, both physically and vocally. Barbe's costumes lent visual richness and warmth. As in the recent Tristan und Isolde, I felt Fisch's contribution gave everything a special dynamic and effectiveness.

One might wonder, at a time when Seattle Opera has announced significant budget cuts, how it could afford such an elaborate and obviously expensive production. The answer is an encouraging coordination with other companies - in this case, the Minnesota Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Utah Opera, and Cincinnati Opera all pooling their resources and sharing the result. I couldn't care less that this show (with different singers) had been seen elsewhere, when the end result is one of such quality and imagination.

For the three principal singers, we got alternate casts at the Sunday matinee and the Saturday opening night. I would be hard-pressed to say which I preferred overall, because tenor Antonello Palombi on Saturday more than made up for his two sopranos being slightly less effective than those in the Sunday cast. Palombi is a phenomenon! His power is almost unprecedented in my 60 years of opera-going, yet he is able to sing softly with a still-focused sound (unlike, say, Jon Vickers, who crooned his soft notes), and he phrases with a perfect legato line. In heroic roles, he's one of the best singing anywhere today. Sunday's Luis Chapa, from Mexico, sounded better than he did as Don Jose in the most recent Carmen, but his musicianship and tone (what an ugly 'ah' sound!) still leave much to be desired.

The all-important soprano roles faired very well in both casts. Princess Turandot has only about 17 minutes of singing, but what singing she must do! In both her dramatic transformation and her extreme vocal demands, she is rather like an Italian Brünnhilde. Lori Phillips, who made her Seattle debut along with her sister as two of the Rhine daughters in 2001, had no difficulty with the role's many big high notes and generally was quite wonderful. But Sunday's Marcy Stonikas had near-great qualities: an even more impressive voice (greater warmth, evenness, and power) and more emotive effect. It was her first Turandot, and it made me wonder if she might be ready for the 'other' Brünnhilde.

The opera's only sympathetic role (other than the much smaller role of Timur, the tenor's blind father) is that of Liù, a slave girl who is Timur's companion. She's a much more typical Puccini soprano, and was well sung by Lina Tetriani on Saturday. But I much preferred the voice and floated pianissimo high notes of Sunday's Grazia Doronzio. Her voice was warmer, and her phrasing moved me in a way that Tetriani's did not.

All of the minor roles were filled supremely well, from Ashraf Sewailam's powerful opening notes to the shaky tones of the ancient Emperor Altoum, projected from the back of the deep set by veteran tenor Peter Kazaras. British bass Peter Rose continued his string of excellent portrayals at Seattle Opera with a warm-voiced Timur. And the very campy trio of Ping, Pang, and Pong (Patrick Carfizzi, Julius Ahn, and Joseph Hu, respectively) were audience pleasers in costumes perfectly suited to their silly characters.

I saw the now-legendary Turandot at the old Met with Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli, with the ancient Leopold Stokowski in the pit. I won't pretend that Seattle's show matched the vocal splendor of that one, but I will say that I found it more exciting than the Zeffirelli production at the Met (available on disc but with a different cast).

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