Virginia Opera’s Turandot Hits the Wow Button

I admitted in my previous blog post that I have a weakness for Turandot.  But still, opera companies must get it right.  Virginia Opera has gotten it right.  They’ve got the singers right, both principals and chorus; they’ve got the staging right, and they’ve got the orchestra performance right.  It’s not the lush, massive production that the Metropolitan Opera is able to stage, and I have a few nitpicks, but overall, this is an elegant gem of a production.  In fact, I am still aglow with the artistic experience and the pleasure provided.  As the cast’s final bows were taken, the performers were given an enthusiastic standing ovation with shouts of approval from a grateful Fairfax audience at the Sunday matinee performance.  Kudos and thanks to all involved in this production!

A Mandarin, Andrew Paulson, who read the edict pronouncing death to a suitor who fails to answer the riddles correctly, surrounded by co-executioners. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

A Mandarin, Andrew Paulson, who read the edict pronouncing death to a suitor who fails to answer the riddles correctly, surrounded by co-executioners. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

The opera’s plot revolves around a princess named Turandot in ancient China who, embittered by a prince’s abuse of an ancestor, requires her suitors to answer three riddles to win her hand in marriage; the penalty for failure is death (you can read the three riddles at the bottom of this report with answers on the For Newbies page).  One prince, Prince Calaf of Persia, comes forward equal to the task, but not willing to win by strength and cunning alone.  Aye, the plot thickens.

Prince Calaf, Derek Taylor, rings the gong accepting the challenge, while his father Timur, Ricardo Lugo, and the slave girl Liu, Danielle Pastin, watch in fear; Ping, Pang, and Pang also seen on the right side. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Prince Calaf, Derek Taylor, rings the gong accepting the challenge, while his father Timur, Ricardo Lugo, and the slave girl Liu, Danielle Pastin, watch in fear; Ping, Pang, and Pang also seen on the right side. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Turandot is meant to be a spectacle, a fable to stir the heart and please the eye.  It brings the exotic dress, furnishings, movement, and sounds of the ancient orient to western audiences. A fable must be engaging in revealing its transformative experience.  The transformative lesson of Turandot is the power of love, and the senses must be engaged.  The staging by director Lillian Groag and her production staff was creative and elegant in concept and design, including costumes, lighting, positioning on the stage, color schemes, movement, and dance.  I might quibble with a few minor points, the occasionally wooden movement of Turandot and Prince Calaf to their stage positions, the sparse settings for some of the scenes, and whether even more effective imagery might have been projected onto the back screens.   However, these items were quite effective overall and the costumes were delightful, and one, that of the emperor, was awesome.  With all the color, the entrance of Turandot in a shimmering white gown was jaw-dropping.  The chorus playing villagers were used effectively to encase and focus the action on the main players.  The use of women as executioners was sensuously menacing.  Clever aspects were the color changing floor and the back screens that allowed the opening of entrances to seem magical. 

Turandot, Kelly Cae Hogan, stands above Prince Calaf, Derek Taylor. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Turandot, Kelly Cae Hogan, stands above Prince Calaf, Derek Taylor. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Then there is the gorgeous music – so melodic, so harmonious, so intricate, so effective at conveying and enhancing the emotion of the drama. Kudos to Puccini! And thanks to the Virginia Opera Orchestra, a sixty-member group, and Conductor John DeMain for bringing Puccini’s music forward so effectively and so beautifully. I am not a music expert, but I thought the orchestra played with great sensitivity. The music was soft and sweetly empathetic on occasion as when supporting Ping, Pong, and Pang’s wistful aria to start the second half.  It was stately in support of the emperor’s arrival and pronouncements, and even majestic as the chorus joined in.  And the Virginia Opera Chorus deserves special mention for its enchantingly beautiful sound.

Night has fallen and the city is lit so that everyone can stay awake to discover the answer to Prince Calaf's challenge to Turandot. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Night has fallen and the city is lit so that everyone can stay awake to discover the answer to Prince Calaf's challenge to Turandot. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

The principal singers were also a strong feature of this production.  Turandot is a demanding role for a soprano and it would diminish the entire opera to not have one up to the task.  It begs for a dramatic soprano, the likes of which one would encounter in Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  Kelly Cae Hogan, whose roles have included Wagner’s Brunnhilde, is an impressive Turandot.  A beautiful presence on stage with a lovely piercing voice, her vocal power easily filled the upper reaches of the auditorium.  Her counterpart playing Prince Calaf, Derek Taylor, has a beautiful tenor voice and sang perfectly as far as I could tell, though a bit more power could be wished for; his Nessun Dorma aria drew spontaneous applause on completion.  Playing Liu, the servant girl in love with Calaf and willing to give all for him, is Danielle Pastin.  Puccini blessed the soprano playing Liu with a couple of achingly beautiful arias, and Ms. Pastin’s voice and singing were the equal of the arias; her star is in ascendancy.  The remaining cast were all excellent in their roles.  I might have wished for a bit more stately gravitas in Ping, Pang, and Pong, but their comic relief was needed and most welcomed.   

My last word – Virginia Opera’s Turandot was just what I wanted it to be.

The Fan Experience:  Tickets ranged from $54 to $110.  I chose the cheap seats (get to see more operas that way), which in the back of the George Mason Performing Arts Center balcony are fine.  In this case, because Turandot is so visually interesting, I might have preferred to be closer.  For personal reasons, I had to wait until late to decide to go.  One point I didn’t realize before is that online tickets sales end a couple of hours before the performance time.  I had to buy my ticket at the box office; however, that saved me having to pay the convenience fee, approaching ten percent these days for online sales.  I managed to get one of the last $54 seats available.  Orchestra and prime seats in the balcony were almost full. The George Mason Center has free parking a few minutes walk from the auditorium or paid parking ($8) right beside the theater.  I was disappointed that mainly the usual older crowd was in attendance.  I kept thinking that if you could pack the theater with young folks for this performance, they’d like it and new opera fans would be made.  Definitely a good opera for newbies.

Turandot moves on to Richmond for performances on March 31 and April 2.  The pre-performance talk by Dr. Glenn Winters begins about 45 minutes before curtain time.

My previous post about the opera itself also noted the Turandot production of the Pittsburgh Opera, which began on March 25 and runs through April 2.  I am unable to get up to Pittsburgh to see that production, but Elizabeth Bloom, music critic, for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has given it a glowing review, noting its unique take on the Turandot story and offering special praise for Alexandra Loutsion who plays Turandot and the impressive staging of the work.  I do have my tickets for PIttsburgh Opera's April 29 premiere of The Summer King.

Turandot’s Riddles – (Answers have been temporarily placed at the top of the For Newbies page to spare those who don’t want to see the answers until having seen the opera.)

I                 What phantom dies each dawn but each night is reborn in the heart?

II               What blazes up when you think of great deeds, is hot in love, and grows cold when you die?

III              What is the ice that sets you on fire?