Turandot: an impressive and moving triumph

08.06.12
Asher Fisch
Seattle Times

By Bernard Jacobson

Seattle Opera's "Turandot" production by Renaud Doucet and André Barbe, unveiled over the weekend, did more than ample justice to the spectacular side of Puccini's last opera. But it also made the most possible of the work's relatively minor human interest, so that by the end we were not merely impressed but moved.

Aside from some charmingly nostalgic ruminations by Ping, Pang and Pong, the humanity of the piece lies almost exclusively in the loving devotion of the slave-girl Liù, the real heroine of the story.

If Prince Calaf had a single sensible bone in his body, he surely would fall in love with her, rather than with the totally repellent personage for whom the opera is named. But this putative "hero" is a character of little human interest, whose inability to doubt himself for a moment reminds me forcibly of Margaret Thatcher.

Still, all the characters in this production are portrayed — and sung — with absolute conviction and high artistry by both casts.

The star on opening night was Lori Phillips in the title role. Her thrilling soprano cut through the orchestral maelstrom with magisterial ease. She played the man-hating princess with steely hauteur, and she looked great, especially in her Klimt-ish gown for the closing scene.

Sunday's cast featured a homegrown Turandot in Marcy Stonikas, a graduate of the company's Young Artists Program. She too made a commanding figure and sang beautifully, if with not quite the flashing incisiveness of her colleague.

Of the two Calafs, Saturday's Antonello Palombi demonstrated the greater weight of tone; Sunday's Luis Chapa the wider range of vocal color. Both made Calaf as sympathetic as his one-dimensional character allows.

In dramatic terms Palombi was perhaps the more convincing, because he conveyed the Prince's lack of imagination more skillfully, whereas Chapa came across as almost too human.

Lina Tetriani and Grazia Doronzio were both compellingly expressive and vocally polished as Liù.

Peter Rose sang Timur with beautiful, rock-solid tone, while depicting the frailty of age with almost painful intensity. The three semi-comic ministers, led by Patrick Carfizzi's assured Ping, delighted the audience. Ashraf Sewailam delivered the Mandarin's statement of the law with impressive strength, and it was a pleasure to see Peter Kazaras back on stage as Emperor Altoum.

As director and choreographer, Doucet hardly put a foot wrong. His only misstep, I thought, came at the moment in the third-act duet when Calaf's kiss melts Turandot's ice. Here, according to the stage directions, the Prince "seizes Turandot in his arms and kisses her in a frenzy" — but Doucet instead had Turandot run to the Prince and kiss him. Whether this was intended as a feminist touch, it made her complicit in her own defeat, contrary to the sense of the story.

What with Barbe's stunning sets and costumes, and equally stunning work by Beth Kirchhoff's chorus and by the orchestra under Asher Fisch's baton, the production, dedicated to the memory of veteran Seattle Opera benefactor Marion Oliver McCaw Garrison, is all together a triumph. Don't miss it.