SALT LAKE CITY
A dazzling set and elaborate costumes brought China's ancient Ming Dynasty to the stage of Utah Opera's Capitol Theatre, but it was a uniformly superb cast that breathed life into Giacomo Puccini's Turandot (seen Mar. 15). The collaboration of stage director–choreographer Renaud Doucet and costume–set designer André Barbe produced a cohesive and opulent blend of color, texture, movement and drama. This is a co-production with Minnesota Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Seattle Opera and Cincinnati Opera.
Doucet and Barbe incorporated the symbolism of shapes and numbers into their production — circular arches, stairs and platforms representing the cyclical journey of life and death. Groupings of three, six and eight signified various concepts, including heaven, earth and man, blessings and happiness, and prosperity and fortune. Elaborate head pieces, lanterns and glowing orbs, female executioners with flashing swords and dancers with butterfly-like banners flowing behind them added to the atmosphere's mystique — enhanced by Guy Simard's deft lighting.
The cast, led by soprano Maida Hundeling as the infamous ice princess and tenor Jonathan Burton as the decisive Calàf, gave the exotic environs heart, fleshing out difficult-to-understand motivations, like the head-scratching attraction of Calàf to Turandot. Hundeling's sturdy instrument pierced impressively during opening statements and showed a glint of vulnerability during "In questa reggia," the beginning of a thaw that continued throughout the show, culminating with an unorthodox rush into Calàf's arms. Burton, vocally unfettered and clarion but with less heft than Hundeling, was dramatically stiff at times but produced a wonderfully shaded "Nessun dorma" that included brilliant top notes.
Kelly Kaduce as Liù gave the night's most credible performance, impressing with a vocal sweetness that belied the sonic force coming from this soprano's slight frame. Her reactions during the torture scene were chilling, and her efforts were rewarded with the evening's biggest ovations. Veteran singer Richard Wiegold as Timur also impressed with cavernous bass and palpable acting.
The trio of baritone Daniel Belcher and tenors Julius Ahn and Joseph Gaines as Ping, Pang and Pong stole the show with well-choreographed antics, detailed characterizations and an arresting comedic touch. Singing and dancing in long-johns, embossed with Chinese printing, capped with whimsically anachronistic headgear and twirling umbrellas, their quasi soft-shoe "Ho una casa nell'Honan" was a brief but welcome diversion.
One misstep was the placement of Emperor Altoum's throne in an upstage box. From that distance, tenor Todd Miller, as the aging monarch, couldn't be heard — an instance when amplification would have been welcome. Utah opera resident Shea Owens lent his ample baritone and canny stage presence to the role of Mandarin with great success.
Conductor David Agler coaxed a luxuriant sound from the orchestra and allowed singers just enough expressive space without sacrificing momentum. Musicians from the Utah Symphony Orchestra played with impeccable precision and tonal clarity. The Utah Opera Chorus, well prepared by Caleb Harris, was augmented with young singers from the Madeleine Choir School, dancers and a squad of adult and children supernumeraries — all performing splendidly and adding depth to the production's vivid pageantry.