by Donald Westwood
On February 7 Fabio Mechetti and the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra gave a major boost to the cause of opera on the First Coast with a noble production of Puccini’s monumental final music drama, Turandot.
A joyous sense of anticipation energized a near capacity audience as they filled the Times-Union Center’s Moran Theater. Nearly three hours later, following a prolonged standing ovation, the audience departed in triumph, knowing they had experienced an unusually grand night at the opera.
Turandot is an ancient Chinese tale about a brutal Princess obsessed with the rape and murder of a female ancestor. She has experienced this horrific event in dreams. Such is her obsession, and accompanying neurosis, that Princess Turandot seeks revenge on the male race buy causing as many would-be royal suitors as possible to be slain.
The underlying psychological motivator is fear. Turandot is terrified of men. The power she wields as both Princess and Deity allows her to avoid confronting this terror as she indulges the blood lust that supplants it. The modern term “driven behavior” applies to both Turandot and a suitor, Calaf, who is determined to have her despite the danger involved.
In terms of the story’s implications, because of the psychological truth it explores the total is greater than the sum of its parts. Conversely, in Puccini’s music drama the parts are many, complex, and famously demanding to master and perform. Done well, Turandot provides one of lyric theater’s richest experiences.
It is a pleasure to be able to state without reservation that the JSO production succeeded admirably. The orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Mechetti, provided a seamless and balanced accompaniment to the drama on stage rising to thrilling levels at appropriate moments and maintaining solid support throughout the performance.
The principal cast was well chosen and effective. Christine Goerke, dressed in flowing white robes, presented a statuesque and intimidating Turandot. She attacked one of opera’s most treacherous roles with power and authority, retaining the capacity for plaintive lyricism as her character’s personality is transformed from cold cruelty to womanly vulnerability.
Roy Cornelius Smith, the Calaf of the evening, sang with beautiful tone and volume to burn. The opera’s most famous aria, “Nessun dorma,” has become a tenor national anthem of sorts. To the credit of both conductor and artist, Mr. Smith performed the aria as written, not as an opportunity for self indulgent display. Clearly, Mr. Smith had plenty of fuel in his tank had he chosen the tasteless route. His performance of the aria as an integral part of the drama was refreshingly effective.
Barbara Shirvis as Liu, a slave girl in love with Calaf, made rewarding choices as well. Never descending into self indulgence, her performance was humble to the point of pathos. Her floated tones – in effective contrast to Turandot’s laser delivery – projected easily in the large theatre space. As with “Nessun dorma,” her arias were performed as part of the drama, not as soprano showpieces.
The entire supporting cast did well. Young-Bok Kim as Timur (Calaf’s father) and Pablo Pomales-Ojeda as The Emperor Altoum (Turandot’s Father) were suitably elderly and effete. Three odd-ball state officials – Ping, Pang, and Pong – performed by Timothy LeFebvre, Jason Ferrante, and Christopher Pfund, provided the requisite comic relief, with Mr. LeFebvre in particular singing with clarity and lyricism. Jacksonville baritone R. Hugh Patterson, whose sympathetic portrayal of Dr. Grenvil in last season’s La Traviata remains in memory, gave an effective accounting of the Mandarin charged to make public Turandot’s pronouncements.
The Jacksonville Children’s Chorus (Darren Dailey, Artistic and Executive Director, and Jon O. Carlson, Director) brought excellent musicianship and a beautifully blended tone to their brief appearances. The Jacksonville Symphony Chorus (Jon O. Carlson, Chorus Master), though insufficient in numbers, made a valiant effort to bring credibility to the opera’s raucous crowd scenes.
Dugg McDonough’s direction featured stylized staging for the principals in keeping with the ceremonial nature of the drama. In their scenes together – whether alone or in the presence of a crowd – Turandot and Calaf performed a series of ritualized approach-avoidance movements that were appropriate to both the story’s fantasy elements and an understanding of human psychology. An especially interesting private moment in Act III placed the Princess on a bench with Calaf draped over her in a stylized pose seemingly inspired by ancient Chinese illustrated lovemaking texts. The effect of this and other moments was both beautiful and disturbing, as the developing physical relationship between Turandot and Calaf created the illusion of a black widow spider and her doomed mate.
The impact of Turandot is linked in part to the opulence of the physical production. With completely detailed sets on loan from Opera Cleveland (Peter Graves, Designer) and magnificent costumes from the Utah Symphony and Opera (Susan Memmott Allred, Designer), this requirement was met with complete success. Lighting by Nick Ciccarello advanced the drama without calling attention to itself as a media statement. Don and Linda Guillot handled makeup and wigs effectively. With credit due to Technical Director Lisa Kish, Production Manager Kevin Roberts, and Stage Manager Lee Marc Molnar, the production operated with well-oiled precision.
by Donald Westwood