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.”

Virginia Opera: A Midsummer Night's Dream
Harrison Opera House, February 13, 2018
Review by John Campbell

The stars were aligned to bring this magical production to Virginia Opera's stage. Adam Turner's conducting gave the music clarity and lightness. Michael Shell's direction and costume design were superb, enhanced by Shoko Kambara's scenic design. The superb lighting and beautiful projections by designer Driscoll Otto convincingly created the ethereal world of dreams. James McGough's wigs and makeup worked their magic. The magicians also included Steven Z. Cook who musically prepared the fairy chorus. The audience was diverse and was engaged in this first-ever Virginia Opera production.

Set in a forest near the city of Athens, three groups of characters, both natural and unnatural, collide in a scintillating, magical world of music constructed by Benjamin Britten. Britten and his life partner, Peter Pears, created the libretto from William Shakespeare's play, carefully retaining only the lines that move the narrative along.

The first group is the ethereal fairies. A calmly commanding Owen Willetts sings the role of Oberon, King of the Fairies, his countertenor voice falling sweetly on the ear. His Queen Tytania is soprano Heather Buck, whose fresh, sensuous lyricism has often been heard in this hall. Puck (or Robin Goodfellow) is Morgan White, a trained dancer and acrobat who speaks in rhyme and flits around the stage, turning cartwheels as he goes, accompanied by virtuoso trumpet solos. The chorus of thirteen fairies are all female vocal music students from the Governor's School for the Arts.

A series of glissando chords that have the rhythm of sleepers breathing are in discordant relationship to each other as Oberon and Tytania squabble over a changeling boy, son of an Indian King that Tytania has kidnapped and that Oberon wants as his squire. Oberon's plan to get the foundling away from Tytania is to have Puck fetch a flower whose juice applied to her eyes in sleep will cause her to fall madly in love with the next living creature looked upon. Tytania and her fairy band fall asleep.

The second group is the daytime citizens of Athens. The quartet of misbegotten human lovers were wonderful. Hermia (mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi) and Lysander (tenor David Blalock) are madly in love and have fled to the woods because Hermia's father has promised her hand to Demetrius (baritone Joseph Lattanzi) who is being pursued by Helena (soprano Mary-Hollis Hundley), who loves him. The Athenian lovers grow weary of pursuing each other through the forest and fall asleep. They too will receive flower eye drops. All looks hopeful except Puck makes a mistake and the lovers get crossed-up.

The third group, the comedic element, is the tradesmen who are not so good at—but very humorous with—the King's English. They are in the forest to rehearse their entertainment for the Duke's wedding: Bottom the weaver (bass-baritone Matthew Burns) is with carpenter Quince (bass Brandon Morales) who is organizing the play, Flute, a bellows mender (tenor Bille Bruley), Snug, a joiner (bass Joseph Hubbard), Snout, a tinker (tenor Stephen Carroll) and Starveling, a tailor (baritone Andrew Paulson). Puck discovers the rustics rehearsing and comes up with a plan to cast a spell on Bottom, turning him into an ass.

Things develop quickly after Bottom grows donkey ears and a long muzzle. He sees the sleeping Tytania and sings a folk song off key. His braying wakes Tytania and she falls madly in love with him. She calls her fairies to attend him. Percussion and harps introduce the fairies Cobweb (Brook Jones), Peasblossom (Hanna Ramsbottom), Mustard Seed (Gabrielle Pinkney) and Moth (Nairobi King) who are also part of the chorus. Ms. Buck woos Mr. Burns with coloratura fireworks. Mr. Burns' warm and witty performance as Bottom was the funniest element of the evening.

As morning comes, the antics of the night are recalled as vague dreams. The Duke (bass-baritone Ryan Kuster) and his betrothed, the Queen of the Amazons (soprano Adriane Kerr) arrive for their wedding. Once the lovers are sorted out by Puck, they too are wed. The play Pyramus and Thisby has Bottom as Pyramus and Flute as his lady, Thisby. Bruley's sly, seductive movements and vocal pyrotechnics brilliantly parody various devices of bel canto opera.

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