Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Lindstrom, Ventre, Jaho Brilliant in San Diego Opera’s Sensuous, Transcendent “Turandot” – January 29, 2011

January 31st, 2011

San Diego Opera’s 2011 season opened with a production of Puccini’s “Turandot”, utilizing David Hockney’s luxuriously colorful sets and Ian Falconer’s exotic costumes, with a strong cast, each of whom met the vocal demands of their role.

These “Turandot” sets and costumes, first seen at Lyric Opera in Chicago, were a co-production between the Chicago and San Francisco Opera companies. The eminent stage director, Lotfi Mansouri, who was associated with the production’s premieres in Chicago (1992) and San Francisco (1993, the latter available on DVD), directs the production’s revival in San Diego.

Although Hockney had already created some memorable opera productions, “Turandot” was the second opera production formed from the personal and artistic collaboration with the young artist Ian Falconer (among other talents, illustrator the Olivia the Pig children’s books), who created the fanciful “Turandot” costumes.

The burst of creative energy from the Hockney-Falconer collaboration resulted a trio of productions beginning with the Los Angeles Opera’s enchanting production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” in 1987 and included also the Covent Garden production of Richard Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten”.

The physical sets and costumes, particularly those that are of such uncommon quality that they deserve a place in a museum of fine arts, can enhance the operatic experience. So does the presence of a full opera orchestra (for “Turandot” typically Wagnerian-sized, and, in San Diego, conducted by the savvy Edoardo Mueller), and the full opera chorus, who are called upon to play as as participatory a role as only a half dozen operas require.

In “Turandot”, as in other Hockney opera productions, the lighting director, for San Diego Opera’s revival the Canadian Michael Whitfield, is key to much of the production’s sensuousness. Whitfield was able to create a magical feel through transformations in the lighting of the sets’ pagoda shapes, its chinoiserie rooflines and Hockney’s vibrant colors.

But, ultimately, what makes an absorbing “Turandot” into a transcendent experience is the presence of singers who can bring beautiful singing and credible acting to this “fairy tale opera”. In the San Diego Opera’s performance, every role was ingeniously cast.

In the title role, Lise Lindstrom made an extraordinary impression in her San Diego debut. She seemingly effortlessly assayed the treacherous six minute aria In questa reggia that provides Turandot’s rationale for her cruelty and her lethally icy demeanor. Turandot is Lindstrom’s signature role, and it is in this role that she is conquering the opera world.

[Bellow: Lise Lindstrom is the Princess Turandot; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Here is a voice of power that can match the great Turandots that Californians have heard in the past half century – Birgit Nilsson, Amy Shuard, Montserrat Caballe, Eva Marton, Jane Eaglen – yet who brings a physical beauty and grace that one can imagine would catch the eye of a visiting prince.

That prince, Calaf, was the Uruguayan spinto tenor Carlo Ventre, who matched Lindstrom in vocal power, yet showed the sensitive side of his fairy tale hero, anguished by the torture and suicide of the slave woman Liu, whom he has only known for hours, yet undaunted from his pursuit of the ice princess.

Ventre’s accomplishments in the Italian repertory have been chronicled on this website before, in San Diego (Team Verdi: San Diego Opera’s Praiseworthy “Aida” – April 23, 2008 and Racette, Ventre Impress in Zambello-Inspired “Butterfly” at San Diego Opera- May 20, 2009) and in San Francisco (House of Puccini: Striking San Francisco Opera “Tosca” with Pieczonka, Ataneli and Ventre – June 14, 2009. Additionally, Chicago was able to see his Turiddu in Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana”(See Guang Yang a Stellar Santuzza in Lyric Opera’s “Cavalleria” – Chicago, February 25, 2009.)

I have felt Ventre to be an artist who is underappreciated by some opera critics, professional or self-appointed, but I regard Ventre as one of the finest spinto tenors singing today. However, it was obvious that the smartly dressed San Diego Opera opening night audience had no disagreement with my favorable assessment, because his ovation after the great tenor third act aria Nessun dorma (thanks to Luciano Pavarotti now almost certainly the world’s most popular tenor aria) was tumultuous.

The role of Liu was sung by Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho. Although Liu was one of Puccini’s favorite creations, of the principals she has the smallest role in the first two acts, yet even so she drew enthusiastic applause for an affecting first act Signor, ascolta. But Liu becomes the central character for an extended portion of the third act, and Jaho was mesmerizing, with an intoxicatingly sweet voice that blended beautifully with Lindstrom’s.

[Below: The slave girl Liu (Ermonela Jaho, front) explains the meaning of love to the Princess Turandot (standing on bridge); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Jaho had appeared in San Diego on one prior occasion, the first night performance of the title role of Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” (See Jaho, Aldrich Triumph in San Diego “Maria Stuarda” – February 16, 2008, taking the place of the indisposed Angela Gilbert. Then Jaho demonstrated a voice with the flexibility and power to handle Donizetti’s challenging vocal composition for the Queen of Scots. That she is equally secure in singing above Puccini’s much denser orchestral writing, demonstrates the abilities of a major artist.

[Below: David Hockney’s setting for a scene from “Turandot’s” Act I; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera. ]

Only two of the remaining six members of the principal cast should be considered comprimarios – the aged Emperor Altuom, played with just right touch of decrepitness by character actor Joseph Frank, and the Mandarin, nicely performed by Scott Sikon, who on two occasions, makes ominous announcements to the Pekingese populace.

Calaf’s father Timur was sung by Reinhard Hagen, whose sonorous basso brought the proper gravitas to this role. The remaining cast members are the three mask roles Ping (Jeff Mattsey), Pang (Joel Sorensen) and Pong (Joseph Hu). If one counts the musical measures in the vocal score (which, for curiosity, I actually did), one finds that the Ping-Pang-Pong is onstage singing more often than any characters other than Turandot and Calaf. The San Diego trio performed admirably, and in Falconer’s costumes surrounded by Hockney’s artistic concept, were a constant delight.

[Below: David Hockney’s sets for “Turandot’s” second act; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Stage Director Lotfi Mansouri neatly choreographed the curtain calls, observing, of course, their traditional order: the Mandarin, the Emperor, the threesome of Ping, Pang and Pong, Timur, Liu, Calaf and Turandot successively descend a staircase to the footlights to receive the expressions of audience appreciation. As each bowed at the footlights, the person next in order would stand at the top of the staircase awaiting his or her turn.

It should be noted that as Ermonela Jaho moved forward to take her bow and Ventre moved to the top of the staircase, the audience rose to its feet to applaud Jaho, in a long and sustained ovation. Ventre’s prolonged wait at the top of the stairs was worth it for him, for he was the next recipient of the enthusiastic applause, which continued and swelled as his colleagues Lindstrom and Conductor Edoardo Mueller took their positions onstage.

[Below: David Hockney’s sets for “Turandot’s” third act; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

The evening was a sellout, and only scattered tickets remained for subsequent performances. Those who are able to secure one of those tickets will realize that San Diego has been treated to one of the great Turandot performances of recent memory.

This performance of “Turandot” is another example of the exchange of productions between the San Francisco and San Diego Opera companies. San Diego this season will also see San Francisco’s enchanting Thierry Bosquet production of Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier”, which is the next scheduled opera.

What has not been officially announced, but which I am authorized to share with this website’s readers is that Lise Lindstrom has contracted to appear at the San Diego Opera in 2012 in the title role of the 2009 San Francisco Opera production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome”. Her Jokanaan for that performance is scheduled to be Greer Grimsley, who starred in the new production in San Francisco. (For my review, see: Nadja Michael a Sensation in Luisotti’s Soaring San Francisco “Salome” – October 18, 2009.)

For my reviews of the Hockney-Falconer “Tristan”, see: The Runnicles, Hockney “Tristan” in S. F. – October 22, 2006, and,

Liebesnacht: Treleaven’s Triumphant Tristan and Watson’s Wondrous Isolde at L. A. Opera – January 23, 2008, and,

Forbis, Voigt Brilliant as Lyric’s Tristan and Isolde – Chicago, February 24, 2009.

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