The Atlanta Opera creates a compellingly dramatic and opulent show with its latest production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot,” currently at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre through May 7.
Although the production features strong performances from featured soloists, the Atlanta Opera Chorus, which in “Turandot” becomes almost a fully fledged character in and of itself, shines here in bringing the work to vivid life. Atlanta is a city of great choruses — it always has been — and the Atlanta Opera Chorus has often managed to sparkle even in operas where the chorus’s role is momentary or merely functional in moving the plot along. But in much of “Turandot,” the princess stays in her palace while the hero is outside trying to get in; a surprising amount of the drama therefore rests with the chorus, which here performs as the people of Peking.
Fortunately, the Atlanta Opera Chorus is up to the task, producing a lush sound and dramatic intensity under the strong direction of guest chorus master Lisa Hasson, who makes her Atlanta Opera debut with this production. “Turandot” famously also includes a children’s chorus, which performs briefly and intermittently during the show, and even they sound great. It must be an Atlanta thing.
Puccini’s “Turandot” tells the fairytale-like story of the beautiful but cold princess Turandot (Marcy Stonikas), who vows that she will never marry unless a suitor can answer, on punishment of death, her three riddles. Calaf (Gianluca Terranova), a deposed prince from a neighboring kingdom, falls in love with Turandot at first sight and decides to take the risk of winning her hand in marriage, although he has always been secretly loved by the humble servant girl Liù (Kelly Kaduce).
The Italian tenor Terranova makes an impressive role debut as Calaf, bringing a sense of confidence, competence and ease to his first performance of the challenging part. There’s a fittingly straight-forward, unflappable sense of surety to his performance of the third act’s home run aria “Nessun Dorma.” Stonikas as Turandot brings out the role’s driven, icy imperiousness in the early aria “In Questa Reggia,” but her most interesting touches actually emerge in the opera’s final scenes. Puccini famously never finished the ending of his last opera, and the finale we have, created by others after his death, can often have an abrupt, unsatisfying, even slightly silly, quality. But here, there was intimacy, dividedness and believability in the character’s final transformation.
But for me, the most moving moment on opening night belonged to Kaduce as Liù. Original stage director Renaud Doucet and acting stage director for this production Kathleen Stakenas orchestrate a grippingly effective torture and death scene for the character, with Kaduce diving headfirst into all of its dramatic peaks and valleys. With her powerful voice and impressive acting ability, she enacts the character’s sudden boldness, making for a moment of genuine tragedy and beauty at the show’s center.
“Turandot” is a show with many moving parts — it’s actually one of the largest productions in the Atlanta Opera’s history — and all the pageantry clicks into place. Designer André Barbe’s enormous sets, consisting of a series of circular arches and platforms, strikes a nice balance between stark, modern simplicity and old-fashioned grandeur. The show creates fantastic stage images, especially when the set is full of chorus members, dancers and supernumeraries, with processions streaming in, around and through the various circular elements in a smartly organized but dazzling way.
Unfortunately, there are also moments when the set can seem too static, and during more intimate scenes, it’s hard to conceptualize the set’s abstract, imagined Peking as real space in which people are interacting with each other.
Still, this production of “Turandot” is remarkably effective overall. Perhaps the most telling sign of the company’s success here is the fact that I brought along a friend who was kind enough to accept my last-minute invitation, but swore all the way to the show that she’d always hated opera. Before the performance began, she warned me not to scold her if she caught up on some sleep while I went to work reviewing the production. But she ended up thoroughly engrossed and totally delighted. An opera hater who becomes an opera fan within the space of a few hours is always the surest sign of a production done right.
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