Voices carried soaring, emotional 'Turandot'

For too many, Puccini's "Turandot" is a one-song opera, that song being the "Nessun dorma" made famous by Pavarotti and eventually by singers in all genres of vocal music. While that association is better than none at all, this opera offers much, much more in the way of richly rewarding music and spectacular singing. This was more than evident in the Virginia Opera Association's fourth production of it in the Carpenter Theatre Sunday.

Esteemed director and actress Lillian Groag, who crafted the 2004 production, again took control and superbly showcased the work's musical and emotional drama. Quite basically, it's about Imperial Chinese Princess Turandot, who is anti-marriage, and Prince Calaf, who's decidedly pro-marriage and his quest to win the heart of the ice princess. The key is for any suitor to answer three riddles, failure to do so leading to death. There have been no winners, until Calaf. Despite the win, she initially refuses to submit. It will take some torture and a suicide before she relents. Talk about tough love.

Vocally, "Turandot" demands three superb singers in the roles of Turandot, Calaf, and Liu, servant to Timur (Calaf's exiled father) who also secretly loves Calaf. All three roles must have voices capable of carrying the emotional weight of the piece. Stratospheric capability is a must. And, here, that requirement was fully met.

Kelly Cae Hogan (Turandot) delivered a stunningly strong, focused and dramatic soprano that soared above the orchestra. It was pure, powerful and passionate, as was her carefully studied dramatic transformation from resistance to release. Derek Taylor (Calaf) balanced Hogan's strong presence with an open, unforced and rounded tenor that served his character well and, of course, thrilled the house with his solid rendering of "Nessun dorma." Danielle Pastin (Liu) displayed a thrilling and lyrical soprano that was rock solid throughout her range and dynamically dynamite, delivering the work's most poignant moments with sincerity and theatrical finesse. Bass Ricardo Lugo (Timur) was vocally commanding and easily captured his every moment on stage. Keith Brown (Ping), Ian McEuen (Pang) and Joseph Gaines (Pong) were vocally effective in their quasi-comic relief roles. John McGuire (Emperor) was appropriately imperial.

"Turandot" also allows its large chorus (including children's chorus) ample showcase opportunities, all of which were smashingly well handled. The solid, well-rounded efforts notably added to the vocal excitement and musical might of this "Turandot."

Although the transforming "kiss moment" brought giggles from the house, Groag's overall stage direction was dramatically focused and effective, several dancers and a menacing executioner adding interest.

Unlike many "Turandot" endeavors, this one did not opt for elaborate costumes and sets. Instead, Groag's set and costume design minimized the trappings to allow the opera's drama to be front and center. Using a bare stage and props, lighting and rear stage projections were supposed to enhance mood and setting. While there were moments of strong visual impact, there were many more less so. Constantly moving patterns often washed over the faces of the singers and many seemed unnecessary. Contrary to Groag's less-is-best design, it's curious that the excessive and often distracting projections passed the approval process.

The Richmond Symphony, under guest conductor John Demain, delivered the brilliant score with intensity and perfection. Demain adeptly balanced things between pit and stage, and allowed the pulse of Puccini to flourish and deliver the VOA's best-yet, vocally smashing "Turandot."

Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for over 40 years. He makes a guest appearnce in Margaret Truman's "Murder at the Opera."

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