'Turandot' hits a low note with small chorus, but scores big with staging, sets, costumes


The Baltimore Opera Company's current production of Puccini's "Turandot" has many of the right ingredients -- they just aren't there in enough abundance for genuine success. "Turandot" -- which the company performed Saturday night in the Lyric Opera House and will repeat Wednesday, Friday and Sunday -- is a musico-dramatic feast. But a smart host doesn't invite guests to a feast -- and then ration the food.

Much the best thing about the production was director Bliss Hebert's staging and Allen Klein's sets and costumes. Hebert understands the mythic proportions of this tale about a glacial Chinese princess whose chastity and riddles prove mortal to her suitors, and he knows how to pace his production while paying sufficient attention to the opera's pageantry. The singers, chorus members and supernumeraries moved with a sense a purpose, which is not something that can always be said about operatic productions. Hebert expressed his conception of the piece in large, striking symbols -- a huge dragon, which enclosed the emperor's throne, to suggest the China of fairy-tale antiquity and a large luminous sphere to enclose the princess, thus evoking the moon that Puccini's music and text associates with her. Klein realized all of this most persuasively, suggesting a production that cost more than it did. (Considering how distinguished Hebert and Klein made this production look, it was strange that neither of them took a bow at the end.)

So what was wrong? When this production was announced last spring, the BOC promised a huge chorus. In "Turandot," this is not a frill. Except for Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov," it's hard to think of another opera in which the chorus plays a more important part. Chorus master Tom Hall did his usual fine job with his singers, but he had a little more than 40 when he needed about 70. The choral sections in "Turandot" are the musical equivalent of war -- they should blow listeners out of their seats -- and Hall was waging it with forces adequate to a guerrilla skirmish. The music was shortchanged and so was the audience. If a company cannot afford to do "Turandot" adequately, it has no business doing it.

Then there was the Calaf of tenor Augusto Paglialunga. In "Turandot," he -- not the princess -- is really the central character. Paglialunga's voice had a baritonal quality -- it did not ring out with sufficient brightness or sweetness to make "Nessun Dorma" memorable -- and it simply wasn't strong enough.

"Turandot" still gives pleasure and there were things to admire. Ealynn Voss as the princess met the role's vocal cord-straining demands on volume and timbre with distinction; Valentin Peytchinov was a powerful and moving Timur; Marquita Lister sang high notes softly enough to win the crowd over as Liu; James Stith, Melvin Lowery and Joaquin Romaguera sang and acted well as the hard-to-tell-apart Ping, Pang and Pong; and Alfredo Silipigni conducted the score with insight and feeling.

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