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18.5.09

Ecco Ping, Ecco Pang, Ecco Pong


Act I of Turandot, directed by Andrei Şerban, Washington National Opera, 2009 (photo by Karin Cooper)
After a spring season of more challenging operas -- a vicious Peter Grimes and a controversial, Americanized Siegfried -- Washington National Opera brought home the bacon on Saturday night, opening its final production, Puccini's Turandot. The company presented this opera last time only in 2001 (with Alessandra Marc in the title role), and the Kirov Opera brought its road staging to the Kennedy Center in 2006. To help dispel the natural question -- do we really need to see Turandot again so soon? -- the company brought the colorful, somewhat slapstick, but still disturbingly savage production created by Andrei Şerban for Covent Garden 25 years ago (with none other than Plácido Domingo as Calaf) to Washington. Since most of the singing was quite good and the orchestra sounded in top form, this is indeed a production worth seeing.

We last heard the powerhouse soprano Maria Guleghina in the 2005 production of Verdi's I Vespri Siciliani. Her puissant dramatic soprano has earned her nicknames like the Oceanliner and the Sonic Boom among the opera blogs, and it is exactly the sort of voice needed so much of the time for Turandot. From her dramatic entrance with In questa reggia Guleghina sang with immense vocal power, slicing through the massive orchestra, which was mostly given its head by conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson. As her Calaf, Argentinian tenor Darío Volonté was weak and undersupported, although he at least made a decent impression in Nessun dorma. It was what led up to that that made one dread the opening of the third act, a pale voice, most of the tone swallowed, that disappeared completely into the orchestra much of the time.



(L to R) Norman Shankle (Pang), Nathan Herfindal (Ping), and Yingxi Zhang (Pong), in Turandot, directed by Andrei Şerban, Washington National Opera, 2009 (photo by Karin Cooper)
Slovenian soprano Sabina Cvilak, whom we appreciated as a sweet Micaëla in last fall's Carmen and as one of the high points in a generally annoying La Bohème the year before that, sang with considerable beauty as Liù, a floating tone that was pure and silken, but vulnerable and tending to vanish at the start of pianissimo notes. Among the supporting cast big points go to the trio of Nathan Herfindal (Ping), Norman Shankle (Pang), and Yingxi Zhang (Pong), with Shankle's voice slightly overpowered by the other two. They went with Şerban's decision to recast these roles not as ministers but as commedia dell'arte acrobat-jesters, complete with colorful, buffoonish costumes (designed by Sally Jacobs), a nod of sorts to the source play by Goethe (adapted from Carlo Gozzi). No one would ever suspect these three clowns of "racking their heads over sacred books," as they sing in the Honan house trio (see the libretto in English or Italian).

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, The Familiar Pleasures of 'Turandot' (Washington Post, May 18)

Tim Smith, Washington National Opera offers vivid 'Turandot' in now-classic Andrei Serban staging (Clef Notes, May 18)

Philip Kennicott, Right-Sizing Turandot at the Washington National Opera (Philip Kennicott, May 17)

Olga Haldey, Turandot — Washington National Opera (Opera Today, May 17)
Morris Robinson sang with force and pathos as Timur, a sound that was a little woolly and unfocused, while local singer Robert Baker gave yet another memorable character performance as Emperor Altoum (descending on a golden throne like a vision of Buddha -- sets also by Sally Jacobs) and Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Oleksandr Pushniak showed an imposing voice as the Mandarin. The chorus, seated in the upper levels of the single set background -- modeled on a Chinese theater, according to the director -- had a few unaccustomed miscues and balance issues. The children's chorus sang with angelic elegance, heard especially clearly in the first act when they stood on the stage floor. Most of the pageantry of the production was provided by a team of dancers (choreography by Kate Flatt) and supernumeraries. Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson led a strong performance from the orchestra, with the string sound cleaned up and burnished considerably (especially in the Honan House trio), incisive brass and percussion (including the marvelous Chinese gongs), and bubbly winds, especially in the dissonant, comic music for Ping, Pang, and Pong and a fearless piccolo solo, decreasing in sound al niente, at the end of Liù's death scene.

This production of Puccini's Turandot continues through June 4 at Washington National Opera. Other sings will take over the three leading roles at some of the later performances (review forthcoming).

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