GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): Turandot—Othalie Graham (Turandot), Carl Tanner (Calàf), Dina Kuznetsova (Liù), Kevin Langan (Timur), Giovanni Guagliardo (Ping), Gianluca Bocchino (Pang), Joseph Hu (Pong), John Fortson (Un mandarino), Johnathan Stanford White (L’Imperatore Altoum); Opera Carolina Chorus; Charlotte Symphony Orchestra; James Meena, conductor [Directed by Tom Diamond; Production Direction, Projections, and Lighting Design by Michael Baumgarten; Sets by Anita Stewart; Costumes by Anna Oliver; Wig and Make-up Design by Martha Ruskai; Opera Carolina, Belk Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Charlotte, North Carolina – 2 February 2015]
The première of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot at La Scala on 25 April 1926, seventeen months after the composer’s death, is one of the most famous occasions in opera. Conducted by Arturo Toscanini, whose association with the operas of Puccini from the podium began with his pacing of the première of La bohème in Torino in 1896, the first performance was an emotional homage to the composer. The performance ended with Liù’s death in Act Three, the last scene that Puccini left in complete form: Toscanini turned to the audience and said, depending upon which source one believes, something along the lines of, ‘We stop here because it was at this point that the composer laid down his pen.’ At the second performance, which—again, sources differ—may or may not have been conducted by Toscanini, the completion of the opera’s final scene by Franco Alfano was also sung. The composer of successful operas such as Cyrano de Bergerac, La Leggenda di Sakùntala, and Risurrezione, Alfano was himself an expert musical craftsman and not at all unworthy of being entrusted with the formidable task of completing Turandot except in the sense of no one but Puccini being fully able to realize the ultimate fruition of what was his most ambitious endeavor. As in the case of Süßmayr’s completion of Mozart’s Requiem, it is foolish to condemn Alfano’s work with the statement that Puccini would have done better. The fact is that he did not, and, unlike Hemingway’s ostensibly unfinished but bizarrely resolved The Garden of Eden, Turandot without the final scene is a wondrous body without its head. Furthermore, subsequent efforts at re-scoring the final scene have proved no more successful than Alfano’s, so fidelity to the work of an artist who knew and respected Puccini and his style is surely the most logical path. Directed by Tom Diamond, Opera Carolina’s production of Turandot employed the Alfano ending but made it seem an unusually organic part of the score. The seams that are all too apparent in the transition from Puccini to Alfano in many performances were here mitigated by the decision to take a brief pause at the end of Liù’s death scene, signaling the point at which the composer’s completion of the score was cut short. Nevertheless, the most brilliant staging of Turandot with poor singing is an unredeemable failure, and in this realm, too, Opera Carolina had a triumph. One no longer expects to hear Turandot without at least occasionally cringing at curdled tones and missed pitches, but this performance defied those expectations. Continuing the company’s trend in recent productions of other repertory, Opera Carolina could teach many of the world’s larger, more renowned opera companies quite a lot about casting, preparing, and performing Puccini’s Turandot.
Scenically, Turandot is one of the most difficult operas in the Italian repertory to produce effectively. The grandeur of the music demands equal dramatic largesse, but there is a real danger of sacrificing the human depth of the opera to the extravagant pageantry of the monumental public scenes. With projections and lighting designs by Michael Baumgarten, Opera Carolina’s production shrank from none of the gargantuan spatial effects required by the score but also concentrated focus on the intimate interactions between Liù and Timur and, eventually, Turandot and Calàf. Martha Ruskai’s wig and make-up designs were particularly effective, and Anita Stewart’s sets and Anna Oliver’s costumes placed the action in a visually stimulating, fancifully colorful Forbidden City. The costumes for Ping, Pang, and Pong were unusually inventive, mirroring the ‘elevated’ habits for the Nymphs in Elijah Moshinsky’s Metropolitan Opera production of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. The vocal challenges of Turandot render it an opera in which hoary stand-and-sing blocking is typical, but Opera Carolina’s production avoided the worst of the ‘parking and barking’ traditions while also placing the singers for optimal projection during key passages. The stage tableaux depicting the moonrise in Act One and sunrise in Act Three were especially lovely, and it was an imaginative touch in Act Two to pull away the mobile scaffolding that elevated the Emperor and Turandot, leaving Turandot physically and symbolically isolated after Calàf’s solving of the riddles. At her first appearance in Act One, however, Turandot was so heavily veiled that Calàf’s description of her ‘divina bellezza’ must indeed have been the product of hallucination as the Maschere later suggest. The projections and stage pictures eloquently evoked Puccini’s China—which of course is not quite the same thing as historical China—and made use of space to cleverly create the impression of an even more expansive setting.
From a musical perspective, Turandot is one of the great operatic masterpieces of the Twentieth Century. Puccini rarely receives the acknowledgement that he deserves for the originality of his orchestrations, and only in La fanciulla del West and Il tabarro did he write anything rivaling the modernity of the orchestrations in Turandot. Under the baton of James Meena the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra delivered an awe-inspiring performance of the score. The exposed passages for xylophone in the opera's opening scene, repeated at key moments throughout the drama, were played with total accuracy, and the important harp figurations were gracefully executed and, owing to Maestro Meena’s thoughtful management of orchestral textures, always audible. There were a couple of breakdowns in ensemble at the start of Act Three, but recovery was rapid, bolstered by especially fine playing from the strings. Maestro Meena’s conducting was notable for the manner in which, like the great past interpreters of the operas of Richard Strauss, he coaxed sounds from the orchestra that compellingly fulfilled the lush late-Romantic promise of the melodic lines while also always sounding like an opera composed in 1924. The influence of Debussy has almost never been more discernible than in Maestro Meena’s handling of the score. His work in Charlotte has been consistently perceptive, but he found in Turandot—a score by which many conductors have been defeated—an ideal outlet for the controlled ecstasy of which he is a master.
Augmented by students from the Choir School at St. Peter's, the singers of the Opera Carolina Chorus have surely never sung better than in this performance of Turandot. The sheer enormity of their sound in Act One was fantastic, and the contrasting delicacy of their invocation to the moon was alluring. The children sang ‘Là, sui monti dell'Est la cicogna cantò’ with touching purity and near-perfect intonation. The funeral march ‘O giovinetto,’ sung as the Principe di Persia is led to his execution, was more differentiated than in many performances from the choir’s bloodthirsty utterances earlier in the act. In Act Two, neither the sobriety of ‘Gravi, enormi ed imponenti col mister dei chiusi enigmi’ nor the perilous tessitura of ‘Diecimila anni al nostro Imperatore!’ upset the choristers, and the children again rose to the challenge of their ‘Dal deserto al mar non odi mille voci sospirar.’ The eruption of joy upon Calàf’s successful response to the final riddle, ‘Gloria, gloria, o vincitore,’ was thrilling. At the beginning of Act Three, the tenors who voiced the Araldi were occasionally uncertain in ‘Così commanda Turandot: "Questa notte nessun dorma in Pekino,’ but, after lustily demanding that she divulge Calàf’s name, the full chorus demonstrated substantial emotional sincerity in ‘Ombra dolente, non farci del male! Perdona, perdona!’ after Liù’s self-sacrifice. Countless performances of Turandot have been undermined by poor choral singing. Conversely, Opera Carolina’s performance was a reminder of how mightily superb choral singing can enrich enjoyment of Turandot.
Baritone John Fortson was a Mandarino of vocal strength and ramrod authority, imposingly tossing off the profusion of C♯s at the top of the staff in his proclamations of 'Popolo di Pekino! La legge è questa.’ His towering presence made him a suitably majestic representation of imperial clout.
Perched high above the stage on a golden throne, L’Imperatore Altoum presided over his scenes like a benevolent deity. His declarations in Act Two were delivered with apt authority by tenor Johnathan Stanford White, who had the distinction of not sounding as though he had already lived the bulk of the ten thousand years of which the chorus often sings. There was genuine regret in his voicing of 'Un giuramento atroce mi costringe a tener fede al fosco patto,' and he conveyed tenderness in his exchanges with Turandot. Significantly, he evinced an indication of relieved joy when Calàf solved the riddles. Mr. White used his compact, reedy timbre to excellent effect.
Fermo! che fai? T’arresta: (from left to right) Tenor Gianluca Bocchino as Pang, tenor Carl Tanner as Calàf, tenor Joseph Hu as Pong, and baritone Giovanni Guagliardo as Ping in Opera Carolina’s 2015 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot [Photo by jonsilla.com, © Opera Carolina]
Puccini’s comic Maschere, Ping, Pang, and Pong, often inspire more wincing than amusement, and Opera Carolina’s production did not wholly avoid slightly uncomfortable pseudo-Chinese stereotypes, but baritone Giovanni Guagliardo as Ping and tenors Gianluca Bocchino and Joseph Hu as Pang and Pong earned their laughs and sang handsomely. Starting with their ‘Fermo! che fai? T'arresta!' in Act One, Ping's line littered with top E♭s and Fs, all three gentlemen made the most of their jaunty music. Mr. Guagliardo gave Ping’s ‘Lascia le donne! O prendi cento spose’ wry humor, and his launching of the wonderful scene at the start of Act Two with ‘Olà, Pang! Olà, Pong!’ was delightfully exasperated. There was true wistfulness in the gentlemen’s lament for the current state of their homeland, ‘O China, o China, che or sussulti e trasecoli in quieta,’ and Mr. Guagliardo’s phrasing of the beguiling ‘Ho una casa nell'Honan con il suo laghetto blù’ was endearingly noble. Their unison top G was rousing. Mr. Bocchino and Mr. Hu revealed bright upper registers in their scene with Calàf in Act Three, ‘Tu che guardi le stelle, abbassa gli occhi,’ their frustration growing as they gleaned that their appeals were falling on deaf ears. All three singers played their parts with gusto, brightening the mood of every scene in which they appeared.
Bass Kevin Langan sang Timur with absolute vocal and dramatic security, ably depicting the deposed King of Tartary’s—historically and geographically, slightly different from the supertitles’ suggested Mongolia—blindness. The elation of Timur’s unexpected reunion with his son in Act One was movingly conveyed by Mr. Langan’s powerful enunciation of ‘O mio figlio! tu! vivo?!’ His recounting of the events that led to his exile, ‘Perduta la battaglia, vecchio Re senza regno e fuggente,’ was mesmerizing, the security of his top Ds increasing the impact of the music. The bass brought a flood of anguish to his singing of ‘O figlio, vuoi dunque ch'io solo, ch'io solo trascini pel mondo la mia torturata vecchiezza,’ seeming to already surmise that there was no reasoning with Calàf. In Act Three, this Timur’s reaction to Liù’s death was almost unbearably heart-rending. Mr. Langan’s entreating ‘Liù! Liù! sorgi! sorgi! È l'ora chiara d'ogni risveglio!’ was pained, and his singing of ‘Ah! delitto orrendo!’ was harrowing, the climactic top F and E♭ shot into the auditorium with unanswerable severity. The quiet sadness of his phrasing of ‘Liù! bontà! Liù! dolcezza!’ defined the very personal tragedy of Liù’s sacrifice. In terms of quantity of notes, Timur is not a large rôle, but Mr. Langan devoted sonorous tone to every one of those notes, and he made the old king more tellingly a ‘padre augusto’ than the exalted Imperatore.
Tanto amore segreto, e inconfessato: soprano Dina Kuznetsova as Liù (center) in Opera Carolina’s 2015 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot [Photo by jonsilla.com, © Opera Carolina]
Moscow native Dina Kuznetsova created a vulnerable but fearless Liù who held the audience’s sympathy in the palms of her hands from her first note. At her entrance in Act One, her plea for help with the fallen Timur, ‘Il mio vecchio è vaduto,’ was spun like the finest Chinese silk, and her phrasing of ‘Chi m'aiuta, chi m'aiuta a sorreggerlo’ was exquisite. She was the model of humility in her singing of ‘Nulla sono...una schiava’ (‘I am nothing, only a slave’), and her top B♭ on ‘mi hai sorriso’ (‘you smiled at me’) was radiant. Ms. Kuznetsova sang the aria ‘Signore, ascolta!’ with heartwarming restraint, caressing the repeated top A♭s and B♭. In Liù’s death scene in Act Three, the soprano’s grasp of Puccini’s arching melodic lines was intuitive, and her singing of ‘Tanto amore segreto, e inconfessato,’ its top As and B taxing but on pitch, was magical. The apotheosis of her performance—as should be true of every Liù—was her sumptuously-sung ‘Tu, che di gel sei cinta,’ her final top B♭ suggesting the serenity of an impressionable but indomitable young woman who dies knowing that she has fulfilled her destiny with courage and honor.
If only Calàf were more deserving of Liù’s sacrifice! Puccini and his librettists, Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, did not succeed in making Calàf a fully genial hero, but Carl Tanner gave his all to portraying a Calàf of uncompromising integrity and romantic magnetism. He bounded onto the stage at his Act One entrance with the brio of an impassioned teenager, and the exuberance of his ‘Padre! Mio padre!’ matched Timur’s glee at their meeting. Mr. Tanner’s top B♭ on ‘O padre, sì, ti ritrovo!’ and B♭♭ on ‘T'ho pianto, padre...e bacio queste ma ni sante!’ were confident and ringing. The vehemence of his denunciation of Turandot’s cruelty in ‘Ch'io ti veda e ch'io ti maledica!’ was juxtaposed by the sudden softening of his sentiments with ‘O divina bellezza, o meraviglia,’ his ascent to top A♭ elucidating Calàf’s budding infatuation with Turandot. Proclaiming his character’s suit for the princess, his repetitions of Turandot’s name cresting on top B♭, Mr. Tanner’s voice soared into the theatre exhilaratingly. There was an air of mystery in his ‘Si profuma di lei l'oscurità,’ but his phrasing of the aria ‘Non piangere, Liù!’ left nothing unsaid: though unable to return Liù’s chaste love, he was sensitive to magnitude of her devotion. In Act Two, the calmness of Mr. Tanner’s singing of the three statements of ‘Figlio del cielo, io chiedo d'affrontar la prova!’ was striking. He sailed bravely to the unison top C with Turandot on ‘Gli enigmi sono tre, una è la vita!’ His vocal and dramatic engagement escalated to feverish intensity in the Riddle Scene, Mr. Tanner’s shining top B♭s on ‘Il mio fuoco ti sgela: Turandot!’ leaving no doubt of his triumph. He brought phenomenal swagger to ‘No, no, Principessa altera! Ti voglio tutta ardente d'amor!’ without hectoring, and he gently stroked the phrases prefiguring ‘Nessun dorma’ on ‘Il mio nome non sai!’ Though in strictly musical terms ‘Non piangere, Liù’ is the better aria, it is Calàf’s Act Three aria ‘Nessun dorma’ that many listeners eagerly await. Mr. Tanner sang it sweepingly, sustaining the most famous top B in opera—a sixteenth note in Puccini’s score, incidentally—valiantly. He displayed true sorrow in ‘Ah! Tu sei morta, tu sei morta, o mia piccola Liù’ and tempestuous indignation in ‘Principessa di morte! Principessa di gelo!’ In the opera’s final scene, his ardor was rapidly transformed into respect and emotional intimacy. Following the performance, it was revealed that Mr. Tanner was very ill with bronchitis, and it is indicative of his artistic rectitude that there was virtually no evidence of his indisposition in any aspect of his performance. No announcement requesting the audience’s indulgence was made: rather, Mr. Tanner took the stage and sang with undeterred professionalism. In so doing, he created a vocally and dramatically outstanding Calàf.
In questa reggia: Tenor Johnathan Stanford White as L’Imperatore Altoum (left) and soprano Othalie Graham as Turandot (right) in Opera Carolina’s 2015 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot [Photo by jonsilla.com, © Opera Carolina]
The description ‘a natural Turandot’ seems a contradiction of terms, but Canadian-born soprano Othalie Graham deserves the designation more than almost any other soprano singing today. A svelte, beautiful lady, she moves with confidence and uses her expressive face to mirror the emotions of which she sings. Turandot is not an easy rôle to master, dramatically: the necessity of almost continuous full-throttle singing limits many sopranos’ abilities to connect with the character on a plane beyond the concern for getting the notes out. The profundity of Ms. Graham’s identification with Turandot was evident from the first phrase of ‘In questa reggia.’ What was also obvious from the first lines that she sang was that Ms. Graham’s command of the rôle’s two-octave range is comprehensive. Her singing of ‘Principessa Lou-Ling, ava dolce e serena’ seethed with fury, the top B on ‘Quel grido e quella morte!’ unleashed with zeal. Her phrasing of ‘Ah, rinasce in me l'orgoglio di tanta purità!’ exploded with umbrage. Ms. Graham gloriously joined Mr. Tanner on the unison top C on ‘No! No! Gli enigmi sono tre, la morte è una,’ and she shaped the Riddle Scene with glacial singing of ‘Straniero, ascolta!’ and ‘Percuotete quei vili!’ The biting irony of ‘Su, straniero, il gelo che dà foco, che cos'è?’ inspired the soprano to singing of frightening potency, offset by her glowingly feminine delivery of ‘Figlio del cielo! Padre augusto!’ The power of her pair of top Cs trumpeted over the chorus on 'Mi vuoi nelle tue braccia a forza riluttante, fremente!—the second of them doubled by the sopranos in the chorus—was stupendous. Turandot’s gradual awakening to love was clearly indicated by Ms. Graham’s singing of ‘Che mai osi, straniero!’ She brought to Turandot’s ‘La mia gloria è finita!’ an element of catharsis that cemented the passage’s kinship with the decisive ‘Son io’ in the penultimate scene of Bellini’s Norma. The repeated top As and hair-raising top B in ‘Del primo pianto’ embodied this Turandot’s blossoming sensuality. After so much extraordinary singing, the top B♭ on ‘Il suo nome è Amor!’ as Turandot reveals to her father and the people of Peking that she has discovered her unknown swain’s name—Love—perfectly crowned Ms. Graham’s performance. Dramatically, she was the unique Turandot who made the character a woman, not an archetype. Vocally, she was, as bears repeating, a sensationally natural Turandot.
Among the world’s good regional opera companies, performances of Puccini’s Turandot are infrequent, but even in the world’s most acclaimed opera houses performances of Turandot of the quality of Opera Carolina’s are rarer still. There is tremendous significance in the fact that, when Turandot was first performed at the Metropolitan Opera seven months after its La Scala première, the production costs and salary for the leading lady, Maria Jeritza, were the highest ever paid for performances at the Old MET on Broadway in the company’s then-four-decade history. The first performance of Turandot was also the highest-grossing show of the MET’s 1926 – 1927 season. These statistics document both the difficulties and the enticements of staging Turandot. Whether or not the company’s production of Turandot was a financially lucrative enterprise for Opera Carolina, it was an artistic tour de force. It was also a fresh reminder of the fabulous reality that Charlotte has become a major destination for some of the world’s premier singers.