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The Atlanta Opera Presents Puccini’s Turandot

03 May

Back in 2003, when scheduling issues forced the company to leave its home at the Fox Theater, the company found itself moving to the nearby Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic center. Opera patrons of that period will recall a barn like venue, not constructed with the acoustics in mind to flatter the operatic genre. The company survived the change for four years, and under the leadership of its new artistic director, Dennis Hawthorne, it relocated once again (in a mildly controversial move) away from the city limits to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center. Following the Cobb venue’s inaguration as the Atlanta Opera’s new home with Puccini’s Turandot, even there naysayers were pressed to accept the acoustic functionality of the new venue. Thus, the Atlanta Opera audience adjusted, and accepted its new suburban home through the hardships of the recession, a reduction in seasonal presentations, and another change of artistic guard with the institution of its new artistic director Tomer Zvulun. To commemorate this decade of transition, the Atlanta Opera looked back to that auspicious move back in 2007, and closed its 2016-17 season this past weekend with another presentation of Puccini’s Turandot to celebrate this milestone.

The unknown prince (Gianluca Terranova) answers the riddle, as Althoum (Nathan Munsson) and Turandot (Marcy Stonikas) look on. Photo credit: Raftermen for The Atlanta Opera

With original sets and stage direction designed by the French Canadian duo of director/choreographer Renaud Doucet and Andre Barbe, this coproduction of Turandot has already graced the stages of the Pittsburg Opera, Minnesota Opera, Seattle Opera, Utah Opera and the Cincinnati Opera. For its current Atlanta outing, the company hired the services of stage director Kathleen Stakenas to keep the integrity of the production values intact. The combined results of the lavish costumes, use of practical convention and the corps de ballet were often dazzling, with dynamic crowd scenes placed against the threatening blood red hue of the circular frame that comprises the bulk of the set in act one and the palace scene in act two. As applied to the principals, the direction was mostly straight forward with one glaring exception. Perhaps as a way to explain Turandot’s transformation in the third act finale, the production team felt it necessary to interpolate the princess’s thaw a full act earlier, and while this humanized the princess, it negated much of her musical intent, and trivialized the necessity of Liu’s sacrifice. At least no video projections were used. Leading from the pit, maestro Arthur Fagen kept the orchestra and soloists together enough. While his tempi were at times frenetic and the shape of his ensemble veered occasionally on the pedantic, he kept the proceedings tidy, bringing back order in the few instances when the soloists anticipated his baton too heavily. The Atlanta Opera Chorus, virtually a principal character in this chorus heavy piece, sang with its customary polish and even a new found expressiveness perhaps inspired by the work of chorus master, Lisa Hasson.

Returning to Atlanta for his second assignment in the role of the unknown prince Calaf (the first in his career,) tenor Gianluca Terranova’s casting inspired some initial trepidation upon its announcement earlier in the season. Many recalled the tenor’s radiant Rodolfo in 2015’s production of Puccini’s La Boheme, an impersonation made quite memorable by way of his warm and beautiful Italianate voice. The role of Calaf, however, is a heftier beast, and concern for the tenor’s vocal stamina and constitution against this mighty assignment naturally ensued. As heard on the opening night presentation, he dispelled all misgivings by unleashing a brawny, bronze hued lyrico spinto tenor that ardently filled the phrases of Calaf’s music with swagger and bravado. The whole of the lower to the upper register is produced through a healthy and quick vibrato, and responsive at most of the dynamic markings, and safe the lack of a trumpety squillo at the extreme top fortissimo, he often recalled the Italian voices of happier decades, and not just in voice but also in mannerism. When given the opportunity, he willingly indulged in the type of excesses designed to earn the public’s approval, and during the final cry of Turandot in act one, and in particular act two’s defiant “no, no, principessa altera” he held unto each high note well past the point of decency and was in turn fully rewarded for it by the enthusiastic audience.

L’enigmi sono tre! Turandot (Marcy Stonikas) and the unknown prince (Gianluca Terranova). Photo credit: Raftermen for The Atlanta Opera

That’s not to say that his Calaf was merely bombastic. His first act aria, “Non piangere, Liu,” was shaped with meticulous and thoughtful care, the request to Liu to look after Timur a heartfelt supplication for once. The opera’s raison d’etre, the universally admired “Nessun dorma” was delivered with a firm, rollicking tone, clear diction and poetic phrasing (the punctuated “no, no, sulla tua bocca lo diro” a fine personal touch) and it brought down the house. To Mr. Terranova’s credit, his instrument did not wilt after the money aria was conquered (as so many have in the past,) and the final duet with the princess found him in solid vocal and interpretive form. This solid performance bodes well for Mr. Terranova as he looks to add the heavier roles in the repertoire to his resume, and if he chooses to test them out in our city, it may bode well for the Atlanta Opera as well.

The voice of soprano Kelly Kaduce was last heard in Atlanta in 2003, when the young artist made her Atlanta Opera debut as Pamina in Mozart’s Die Zauberflote. The memory of those performances recalls a light lyric soprano voice, with a round and glowing freshness that struck an ideal fit for the Mozartian heroine. Ever since those performances, she soon graduated to heavier Italian roles, leading up to her return to the Atlanta in the role of Liu. Much has changed in those 14 years, and as heard on the opening night performance, her voice has grown in size and color. Like Mr. Terranova, her vocal production is central, allowing the singer’s phrasing to project an attractive warmth as well as generate an imposing wall of sound, giving her all the necessary elements to qualify as a valid exponent of this legendary role.

These proclivities come with their share of problems, and the wide production left her occasionally unable to properly reduce the sound to piano in the important “perche un di, nella reggia, mi hai sorriso” as well as the concluding measures of the aria “Signore ascolta”. Furthermore, the voice grew slightly tremulous under pressure, and the top register whitened considerably when accessed at the fortissimo in the back to back arias that conclude her participation in act three. These caveats aside, the overwhelming benefits of her alert interpretation remained the torrents of Italian sound to be heard in Ms. Kaduce’s singing and the generous manner in which she projected it. In terms of timbre, hers may be the most Italianate Liu to have graced the Atlanta Opera stage.

Kelly Kaduce as Liu. Photo credit: Raftermen for The Atlanta Opera

The long wait for Turandot’s arrival can be the host of many a fun guessing game in the mind of the
savvy operagoer. The role requires the resources of a true dramatic soprano with a dominating upper
register and an icy disposition, capable of penetrating the thickest orchestral fabric with no preparation. Yet for the tricky riddle scene and the opera’s final duet, she must also be a nuanced and sensitive artist, capable of making sense of the princess’ mysterious dispositions. As the voices of the Atlanta Opera Children’s chorus faded into the scenery and the evening’s Turandot, soprano Marcy Stonikas making her Atlanta Opera debut in this role, had settled at the top of the stage to recite her introductory solo, it would seem that her impersonation would be underlined by a heavy question mark from the outset. At the very utterance of “In questa reggia,” it became immediately evident that her soprano simply did not have the voluminous profile to qualify for the assignment, and though it was well placed and properly focused throughout its range, the whole of it was quite underpowered. As it applied to Turandot, her resources were suspect on paper: A well-oiled large lyrico spinto soprano with a serviceable lower register, healthy and responsive middle, and well-focused yet squallid top, loud enough to function but never overpowering in the way we have grown accustomed throughout the decades. Unlike Ms. Kaduce or Mr. Terranova, Ms. Stonikas’ is not a central voice, but one produced with its own characteristics throughout the registers, and how she used these various metals to comprise a musical characterization became a triumph of method over nature as the night progressed. In fact, the way she used her limitations to her advantage became a testament to her vocal craftsmanship and intelligence.

The opening segment of “In questa reggia” itself, with its recalling of the fate of her predecessor, is frequently treated by more appropriate instruments as a warm up to the relentless attacks in the upper tessitura that hallmarks the remainder of the role; yet here it was shaped with unusual care and with heaps of sheer tonal beauty. It also bared witness to her expert pacing. For instance, she would let the orchestra establish its statement, allowing her to measure out the necessary effort, and when the case permitted it she would spend enough voice to make her point but go no further, and thus save her instrument for the merciless segments ahead. To be fair, the role was compromised by this, and when the more stentorian pages arrived, the limitations became more obvious and inescapable, most certainly when compared to the blunter voice of her leading man, though by that point our ear had grown more curious to the subtler qualities of her art.

Turandot (Marcy Stonikas) succumbs to the unknown prince (Gianluca Terranova). Photo credit: Raftermen for The Atlanta Opera

These were in great evidence during the riddle scene, where the very draw backs of the instrument managed to inspire a certain fascination. The “straniero ascolta,” though forceful, inspired no terror. Yet its juxtaposition against the first riddle, sung as a meek insinuation and taunt, succeeded in projecting this very unlike sound past the footlights with surprising success. As the second riddle led to the third, and the musical situation intensified, the applied effort began to take its toll, and the repeated assault to the upper extension tightened and pinched her sustained high Cs. And so as this uniquely feminine and girlish Turandot sailed upwards into the stratosphere to battle the cacophony during the key ensemble “Figlio del cielo,” she was mostly drowned. Her short exchange with Liu in the third act further cemented the general lyric condition of her instrument, and one which she seemed happy to showcase in its own terms. Later, alone with Calaf, her vocalism melted too quickly, favoring the more romantic side of the character during the confession “Del primo pianto”. Here the voice was clearly heard at its most responsive, the middle register glowing and warm wrapping around the phrases with a winning effect. This impression was somewhat shaken during the flights upwards in “Son tuo nome” which though accomplished enough were realized through evident effort. Her final address to the emperor, “Padre augusto” was beautifully sung.

While Ms. Stonikas can do very surprising things with this role, she ultimately lacks the elemental vocal material to give the part its true sonic value. Her art is of a gentler and infinitely more nuanced nature, one which quite frankly is wasted in the part of the legendary Chinese princess. It is interesting how an artist with a creative edge who has something special to offer can somehow seduce the listener to accept his or her rules and shortcomings. Thus while we admit that Ms. Stonikas is essentially miscast as Turandot, we still count ourselves lucky to have heard her sing it.

Steven Humes as Timur. Photo credit: Raftermen for The Atlanta Opera

Returning to the theater he inaugurated 10 years prior, bass Steven Humes reprises the role of the blind deposed Timur in these performances. The decade has added to his interpretation, and as expected also taken away from his stately instrument. The voice has lost a significant amount of dark color in his palette, rendering his Timur quite younger than before. The diction and emotive powers are still very clear, and he phrased his dialogue with the confidence of a seasoned performer. His final declamation of “Liu, bonta. Liu, dolcezza” was inbued with a melancholy gravitas that struck an apt tribute to the luminous soul that had left this savage and dark country. The Emperor Altoum of tenor Nathan Munson was slight and appropriately underpowered. For their part, the trio of Pang, Pong and Ping were well sung by Julius Ahn, Joseph Hu and Daniel Belcher, their level of success indicative of the order in which we have listed them. Finally, the solid bass-baritone of Alan Higgs as the Mandarin kept the citizens of Peking informed.

There are two more performances of Puccini’s Turandot at the Atlanta Opera. For more information, please visit the company’s website at www.atlantaopera.org

-Daniel Vasquez

 
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