Virginia Opera: Turandot
Harrison Opera House, Norfolk
March 17, 2017 
Review by M.D. Ridge

Virginia Opera’s new production of Turandot is a treat for eye and ear, due in no small part to its brilliant director Lillian Groag. Her inventive staging, costumes and set design bring out all the drama, passion and pageantry of the much-loved opera. Before the curtain even rises, the menacing executioner, silently embodied by Cierra Wilson, parades slowly across the apron, sword in hand, to behead a garish red-and-black mask—and you’re hooked!

Soprano Kelly Cae Hogan sings the title role of the imperious Princess Turandot, daughter of the Emperor of China; any suitor who can’t answer her three riddles will be beheaded. Hogan’s voice is both powerful and musical; she makes believable the icy Princess’s fear of losing herself in marriage.

Tenor Derek Taylor sings Calaf, who sees Turandot for the first time at the beheading of the Persian prince—and falls instantly in love with her. Taylor has great vocal passion, but if his acting and facial expression were any more wooden, he’d be a totem pole—and the headband makes him look more Native American than Asian. Taylor’s voice is sometimes overwhelmed by the orchestra of Richmond Symphony players under the direction of conductor John DeMain.

Richard Lugo’s huge bass perfectly fits Timur, the blind, banished King of Tartary, who is Calaf’s long-lost father. Virginia Beach native Danielle Pastin is Liu, the slave girl who has cared faithfully for Timur because of her unspoken love for Calaf. Liu’s passionate, beautifully sung refusal to betray Calaf, and her unwavering loyalty and love in spite of torture, is key to Turandot’s eventual change of heart.

Ping (bass-baritone Keith Brown), Pang (tenor Ian McEuen) and Pong (the lively Joseph Gaines) are the court ministers who, tired of the endless bloodshed, share memories of their peaceful homes; they try to dissuade the determined Calaf from accepting Turandot’s deadly challenge. Groag gives the trio dimension as individuals as well as comic relief.

Tenor John McGuire, of the Christopher Newport University music faculty, is an imposing but sympathetic Emperor who would like to address Calaf as his son instead of as another sacrifice to Turandot’s fears. Baritone Andrew Paulsen is the mysterious Mandarin.

The large chorus, directed by Aaron Breid, begins rather raggedly but soon gains cohesion. The pure voices of the Virginia Opera’s Children’s Chorus are a captivating counterpoint to the adults’ bloodshed. (Watch carefully for Turandot-in-training’s wordless hint to Calaf at the crucial moment.) Kyle Lang’s choreography, especially for the executioner and her four dancers, uses Asian elements for an alien strangeness.

Lighting designer Driscoll Otto’s projections—a ring of fire in the sky; the looming, cratered moon; the lapping waters of the blue lake at Ping’s faraway home, the starry night sky—together with Groag’s minimalist set and skillful direction, these give the Harrison’s restricted stage a sense of great space and wonder.

After Liu kills herself to avoid betraying Calaf, her dead body lies bathed in blood-red light, from which she rises as the spirit of the dead Persian prince comes to lead her away into light. It’s very effective.

One simple but telling detail that delineates caste and nationality at a glance is the stripes of colored makeup in a band across the eyes from temple to temple. The executioner has yellow eye stripes; her dancers have blood-red ones. The children’s eye stripes are blue; the mob’s are black; Turandot’s are blinding white. The non-Chinese have no eye stripes at all.

Puccini died after finishing the first two acts of Turandot, leaving 36 pages of sketches not fully orchestrated, to be fleshed out by Franco Alfano. (This may account for Turandot’s too-quick transformation from Ice Princess to passionate lover.) A former Italian diplomat had given Puccini a music box that played Chinese melodies; the composer used three in the opera, including the folk song “Mo Li Hua (Jasmine Flower),” sung by the children’s chorus in the first act, then associated with the princess.

But why is the Princess barefoot? Why, when the mob scenes were so energetic, are the principals so . . . static? But these are minor cavils. This Turandot was a strikingly unforgettable performance, bringing Puccini’s music to breathtaking life.

An earlier version of this review appeared in the Virginian-Pilot.

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

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