|Joseph Flaxman, Michael Pilafian, Therese Panicali, Judith Fredricks, Edgar Jaramillo, and Xueyan Fan
Tomorrow we will be listening to the broadcast of Turandot from Chicago Lyric Opera on WQXR; we don't expect to enjoy it nearly as much as we enjoyed Opera New York's production, heard last night at the Church of the Sacred Heart.
Artistic and Stage Director Judith Fredricks produced a slightly abbreviated version of this beloved opera (Puccini's last and not-quite-finished score which premiered in 1926), omitting the scenes with Ping, Pang, and Pong, as well as the decapitation of the Prince of Persia. We find producing Turandot to be a brave choice; but if you have the voices, why not?
There were no projected titles but the enthusiastic audience received a program with a summary in English; a narrator spoke the summary in Spanish for the Spanish-speaking members of the audience. The opening decrees were spoken in English by Robert Montgomery.
The piano reduction was played by Michael Pilafian, who has played for many of Opera New York's productions. To our great surprise, soprano Elena Heimur played the other orchestral parts on the organ, situated above and behind the audience. Not a day goes by that we don't learn something new about the singers we love. So Ms. Heimur's proficiency at the organ simply dazzled us.
Ms. Fredricks' stage direction made the most of the space, utilizing the rear gallery and the aisle. We were so busy listening to the grand voices that we barely missed the huge spectacle provided at the Met. What we gained was a feeling for the intimate relationships of the four main characters. Behind the lavish sets and costumes, this is really a family story.
Our newbie guest wanted to know how father and son came to be separated and then reunited in a foreign land. We couldn't answer but we could certainly make up a back story. Se non è vero, è ben trovato! Here goes! Son went off to find his fame and fortune and a princess to be his bride. Father lost his sight and was deposed and thrown out of his kingdom; wandering into the neighboring kingdom, he ran into his son on the street. He was being led around by his loyal and devoted slave girl who loved Calaf the Prince because he once smiled at her. (OK folks, how'd I do?)
Calaf, sung by tenor Edgar Jaramillo with rich full tone and ringing high notes, is headstrong like many young men we know. He gets a glimpse of that radiant celestial Princess Turandot and is determined to win her, even with the risk of losing his head, like so many previous Princes had. Of course, his helpless father is threatened and tries to dissuade him. Unsuccessfully. Mr. Jaramillo was exceptional in "Nessun dorma".
This icy Princess Turandot is bearing the weight of #MeToo. Because an ancestor of hers had been sorely abused and murdered, she is a real man-hater, eager to decapitate all comers by challenging them with difficult riddles. In this role, it was a pleasure to hear dramatic soprano Therese Panicali whose huge authoritative voice limned the character of Turandot in "In questa reggia". The fact that she is young, slender, and beautiful made Calaf's willingness to take the challenge more believable for us. We count ourself among those who want casting to be believable. She was even believable in her change of heart at the end, even without support from Puccini's pen.
The turning point for Turandot is Liu's willingness to take her life rather than reveal Calaf's name. She is being tortured by Turandot's minions and stabs herself so that she won't cave. In this role, soprano Xueyan Fan was also totally convincing. She did an excellent job of conveying the deference of a slave, while singing in impressive Italianate style. Of the entire cast, her role is the most sympathetic. We loved her "Signore, ascolta".
As the blind father Timur, Joseph Flaxman also did a fine job with great singing and some very effective simulation of blindness as he crouched over his walking staff. Since the singer is young and handsome, this represented a triumph of acting.
This Turandot rested on the artistry of the singers. There were no sets and the costumes were rudimentary, but they worked. The small chorus (Brooke Dobossy, Betsy Cangelosi-Lind, Umberto Ross, and Patricia Ruiz) contributed to the success.
New York is replete with small opera companies, each with a unique approach. Unfortunately, we do not have affordable small theaters and these companies have been finding homes in churches. The surroundings are beautiful but the acoustics are spotty and one's auditory pleasure rests upon finding a seat in just the right spot. Won't some captain of industry build a small theater? We can just imagine how much that would improve the cultural landscape of New York City!
(c) meche kroop