Turandot is tricky. A huge chorus, thundering orchestra, and over half a dozen other principal singers build audience expectations for an act and a half before the star sings a note, and then, like a rocket, the soprano must go from zero to escape velocity with her dazzling introduction, her explanation for her cruelty to her suitors in the aria “In questa reggia.” Last night at the Blank Performing Arts Center, the Des Moines Metro Opera company presented Alexandra LoBianco in the title role of Puccini’s final opera. With force, lyricism, and an absolutely huge top, Miss LoBionco was fire and ice, succumbing to the unnamed Prince (Jonathan Burton) and winning over the audience as well as her tenor, despite the shock and horror of the death of the incandescent Vanessa Vasquez’ brave and loyal Liu.
Setting the Stage
The venue did much to assist the success of the evening. The entire stage, and of course the pit below it, is situated below audience level. Sitting in the fifth row, I felt as though I had the best of both worlds: the sound of the balcony together with the view from center orchestra. What at first seemed much too small a pit opening was situated about a third of the way back from the front of the stage so that the singers were often in front of the orchestra. This staging was particularly helpful to the characters of Ping, Pang, and Pong (Michael Adams, Brian Frutiger, Chris Carr), whose use for comic effect in the first act (lots of “you shall not pass” posturing brought comparisons to the Three Stooges from audience members) does not necessarily endear them to the audience, particularly when it shades into “Three Little Maids” territory. As their final appearance in Act one is to laugh hysterically at the doomed Calaf, they are not terribly sympathetic characters until we get their back story at the beginning of Act two. And it is here where their placement between the orchestra and the audience helped to create an intimate moment that brought their characters much closer to the audience emotionally as well as physically.
The director (Stephanie Sundine) also made effective use of a descending platform near the front of the stage, which was particularly moving when it swallowed up poor Liu. I would have liked to have seen it used at the very beginning when the Mandarin (Timothy Bruno) appears before the crowd to announce the fate of the Prince of Persia, who, like every suitor before him, has failed to answer Princess Turandot’s three riddles and is condemned to death. Instead, he appeared in a tower which would later be used by the Executioner and his shirtless assistants (Tomorrow night’s premiere of “Billy Budd” promises more of the same). I suppose using the platform would have interfered with her ability to flood the stage with choristers at the opening of the opera. In fact, the sound they were able to produce upon whirling from the Execution to face the audience to express their wrath was overwhelming; it’s rare I hear complaints from audience members about the music being “too loud (at least since I stopped attending AC/DC concerts with my contemporaries).” With the entire chorus singing as loudly as it could, and the orchestra, augmented by exotic Oriental percussion, producing an enormous wall of sound, I was impressed with how the principals could float their lines with great clarity above the roar of the crowd.
A Insightful Leading Man
The sopranos, I suppose, have something of a natural advantage there, and so special kudos to Mr. Burton, whose ringing tenor voice never failed throughout the evening. His “Nessun dorma” literally stopped the show in the last act, not because it was so familiar to the audience but because of the incredible vocal power displayed by the tenor. The final B was held for so long, with such strength and evenness of tone, my jaw literally dropped; I was left agape. His performance gave me insights into his character that were simply lost to me the last time I saw “Turandot.”
At The Met, two seasons ago, the tenor was swallowed up by the house and basically strutted about the stage waiting for his big numbers. In this much smaller venue, the complexity of Calaf’s role was amplified by his intense engagement with his co-stars, particularly with the brilliant Vanessa Vasquez.
A Scene-Stealing Liù
Every Turandot must live in fear that Liu will steal the show from her (just ask Nina Stemme about Anita Hartig). From the moment she enters, bruised and battered but fiercely loyal to a for some reason not-blind-in-this-production Timur (Federico de Michelis), Vasquez engaged the audience with a magnificently tender “Signore, ascolta!” and a genuinely touching stage presence. By the time Calaf got to respond with “Non piangere, Liu” it was already too late for most of us, the soprano already had us in tears. Perhaps the audience had some sympathy to spare. I don’t know why the director chose to make Calaf’s father sighted in this production; it made the character instantly less vulnerable, and his actions taken after her stunning confrontation with Turandot (“Tu che di gel sei cinta”) in the final act less comprehensible.
Finding Success As Fire and Ice
In the end, Turandot can only succeed if the lead can make the audience transfer its sympathies from Liu to her. Musically, the task eluded the great master as Puccini died before he could finish the opera and resolve the story. It is a great testament to Miss LoBianco that she found a path to success, even if she was not in absolute top vocal form (there were several occasions when I felt she would have killed for a half-second of more breath, and one time she cheated just a little bit before an absolutely huge top note by shortening the phrase before the run up). Her chemistry with her co-star was apparent and they are paired together again this winter in Austin Lyric Opera’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.” LoBianco can also be seen next season as “Aida” in Seattle.