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‘Turandot' soars as a royal triumph

April 18, 2009

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    April 18, 2009
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    Opera Carolina News

‘Turandot' soars as a royal triumph

Opera Carolina's staging of “Turandot,” Giacomo Puccini's blockbuster Chinese fairy tale, centers on two vocal dynamos who keep cranking up the throttle the longer they sing.

Yet the look of this “Turandot” is as arresting as its sound. Opera Carolina, which rarely ventures far from 1950s stagecraft – where a house is a house and a tree is a tree – has broken loose. The sets and costumes, originally from the Minnesota Opera, turn a few Chinese design motifs into the jumping-off point for a trip to fantasyland.

Royal personages ride onstage atop towers that lift them 15 or 20 feet into the air. Their billowy robes and towering headgear, splashed with vibrant color, bespeak a power transcending time or place. Down on terra firma, the common folk wear grey, shapeless uniforms that reduce them to a huddled mass – especially when stage director Brian Deedrick crowds them beneath the royals' towers.

Images projected onto a backdrop dominate everything. They set moods through the airiness of abstract filigree, the drama of a sky full of luminous clouds or the creepiness of rows of faces evoking a chorus of ghosts.

Despite all of that, the central duo – Lori Phillips as Turandot, the princess with a frozen heart, and Roy Cornelius Smith as the mysterious prince who melts the ice – easily stood out Thursday night.

Phillips, ordered by Puccini to sing 20 minutes of ferocity as soon as she opened her mouth, was blunt about it at first. But her voice gradually gained a focus and assurance that mirrored her imperious stage presence. By the final duet – with Turandot at last giving in to love – Phillips rivaled the trumpets pealing from the orchestra pit.

So did Smith. His singing was ringing and secure from the start. Even with tinges of steeliness giving his voice impact, Smith could soften it to flow smoothly through Puccini's melodies.The other principals weren't to be eclipsed. Jee Hyun Lim, playing the slave girl Liu, was on shaky ground expressing Liu's tender feelings for the prince. But when that devotion led Liu to heroic self-sacrifice, her voice surged. As the three courtiers who try to scare the prince off from pursuing Turandot, Eric Greene, Robert Mack and Daniel Ross Hinson swirled around him in a bundle of choreographed energy.

For the plebeians, too, director Deedrick used group processions and gestures to give the big scenes an air of ritual. Here and there, someone got confused about whether it was time to clasp hands or cross arms. But the Charlotte Symphony, conducted by James Meena, was always cohesive. It treated the kaleidoscopic score to silk as well as steel.

The only episode that faltered Thursday was the first part of the climactic scene. The stage emptied of everyone and everything except Turandot and the prince; a black curtain hid the projection-screen backdrop. Maybe the idea was to focus the audience's attention on the two leads. Instead, the stage simply looked bare, and the fairy-tale aura was broken.

It picked up again when the stage refilled for the final celebration. Royals, plebeians and the heroic duo joined in a grand tableau, and the end was a flood of color and sound.

Steven Brown
Charlotte Observer