CCM's "Turandot Soars

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Jan 29, 2011 - 5:46:46 PM in reviews

It was Puccini rampant in Corbett Auditorium at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music Friday night, as conductor Mark Gibson led a stirring concert performance of “Turandot.”

Rarely has this reviewer seen opera lovers so happy, almost as happy as Gibson, director of orchestral studies at CCM, who reveled in the lush score and earned every plaudit he received for having made it happen.  He headed an enormous assemblage:  the Philharmonia Orchestra (94-strong), the CCM Chamber Choir and Chorale (87 voices total), the 78-voice Cincinnati Children’s Choir and a ten-member cast headed by CCM alumna Helen Lyons as Turandot (artists diploma, 2008) and tenor Wang Feng of Central Opera, Beijing as The Unknown Prince (Calaf).

And that was just onstage.  Offstage was a 12-piece band comprising the CCM Brass Choir and a pair of saxophones.  Facing the audience just in front of the podium was a huge Chinese gong.

 Remarkably, with all these forces to coordinate, ensemble was clean and precise, with Gibson vigorously in control throughout, dispensing cues right and left (sometimes backward) and mouthing Italian lustily.  Except for the obvious joy he felt, he seemed hardly fazed by the effort, sweeping everyone up in a huge embrace at the end and shouting “thank you” to the cheering Corbett Auditorium crowd.

A collaboration by Central Opera, Beijing, CCM and the Greater Cincinnati Chinese Music Society (which will include act I of “Turandot” on its Chinese New Year Concert at 7:30 p.m. tonight in Corbett Auditorium), the unprecedented event celebrated the ongoing, 12-year partnership between CCM’s orchestral studies program and Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music.

“Turandot” is mythic, with a big helping of Puccini’s suffering feminine.  Based on the play by Carlo Gozzi -- based in turn on a Persian fable -- it recounts the bloodthirsty tale of a man-hating princess who forces prospective suitors to answer three riddles on pain of death.  Calaf, son of the exiled King of the Tartars (Timur), comes to Peking just in time to witness the latest beheading – and to fall in love with Turandot himself.  In the crowd, he meets his long lost father, now blind, accompanied by the slave girl Liu.  They and three of the Emperor’s retainers, Ping, Pang and Pong, try to persuade him to forget Turandot, but he impetuously sounds the gong signaling his acceptance of the challenge (yes, that gong, and those in the front rows felt it).  Calaf proceeds to answer Turandot’s riddles, but takes pity on her distress and tells her he will be at her mercy if she can discover his name before dawn.

The quintessential Puccini is embodied in Liu, who has loved Calaf since he once smiled at her at the palace.  Having been seen with Calaf in Peking, she and Timur are apprehended and asked to reveal his name.  To protect Timur, Liu states that she alone knows his name, but she refuses to reveal it under torture.  This greatly impresses Turandot (what is this thing called love?) and the exhausted Liu finally stabs herself.  Calaf chides Turandot, but steals a kiss from her anyway and magically, she melts in his arms.  He tells her his name, putting himself at her mercy again, but when called upon to reveal it, Turandot proclaims that his name is “love” and her reign of terror ends.

Big voices able to sing over an orchestra in full throttle are what “Turandot” needs and it got them in Lyons and Feng.  She was a natural in “In questa reggia” (“In this palace”) telling of the ill-fated princess Lou-Ling whose ravishment and death at the hands of an invader she is committed to avenge.  When joined by Feng on Calaf’s response, the two singers quickened pulses throughout the auditorium.

Lyons and Feng acted and sang the riddle scene with great skill and credibility, she gazing haughtily at him, he digging his fist into his palm as the answer to the first riddle came to his mind.  His climactic “Nessun dorma” (“No one sleeps”) fulfilled expectations save for a slightly bent pitch or two, not including his thrilling high C, however.

There were two Lius, sopranos Xi Wang in acts I and II and Amanda Woodbury in act III (Wang is in rehearsal for Mozart’s Susanna in February).  Both were excellent, Wang on her affecting “Signore, ascolta” (“”My lord, hear me”), Woodbury on “Si Principessa” where she tells Turandot that she, too, will come to love Calaf.

Bass Timothy Bruno was an outstanding Timur, breaking into tears at Liu’s death.  Baritone Hunter Enoch and tenors William Compton and Wes Lawrence were skillful, energetic and amusing as Ping, Pang and Pong.  Tenor Will Reed sang the blood-weary emperor Altoum from a side balcony, flanked by members of the CCM Brass Choir (the others sounding from the opposite side of the hall).  Baritone Emmett O’Hanlon as the Mandarin, singing from the back of the CCM choirs, gave notice that his is a voice to watch.

Enough cannot be said for the Philharmonia Orchestra, which played with great dedication and skill scrunched between the two choirs (in front) and the Children’s Chorus (in back).  No less than nine percussionists kept the exotic sounds coming, whether xylophones, gongs, glockenspiel or wood block.  The choruses, in various roles as the people of Peking, priests, ghosts (of suitors), Mandarins and members of the imperial household set a vivid backdrop throughout.