OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Puccini’s “Turandot” at Hollywood Bowl

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

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Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

Puccini: Turandot

Sunday, July 17, 2011 Hollywood Bowl

Next concert: Tuesday, July 19; Dudamel and LAPO: All Mozart

Info: www.hollywoodbowl.com

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Throughout the first half of its 90-year-history, Hollywood
Bowl regularly produced a number of significant opera evenings and in the past
two years, Gustavo Dudamel has done his best to revive that tradition. Last
season it was with Bizet’s Carmen (my
review is HERE). Last night it was Puccini’s final opera, Turandot.

Whenever an opera company stages Turnadot, the tendency is to mount a grandiose affair with massive
sets and lavish costumes (for a prime example, Google “Met Turandot” and take a
gander at the photos from Franco Zeffirelli’s over-the-top production).

 

None of that was possible — nor, as it turned out, necessary
– at the Bowl last night. The “set” was a platform behind and above the Los
Angeles Master Chorale. There were no costumes; the women wore long gowns and
the men donned white dinner jackets (which had a disastrous effect on the
supertitles — see Hemidemisemiquavers below
for details) — with one notable exception: Dudamel wore a black dress shirt
with black pants.

 

The most impressive part of the staging was the effective atmospheric
lighting, although the red and blue combination shining on the Bowl’s iconic
curves did remind me somewhat of the the Looney
Tunes
cartoon titles. The blue backdrop with the moon projected on the back
wall made for highly effective visuals on the big screens once the sky darkened
at about the second act.

 

All of this served to put the evening’s focus on the music
and the musicians, which in this opera is right where it belongs. What the Bowl
could offer was a full-size orchestra on stage stage (including a “banda”
positioned stage left), not in an orchestra pit, two major choruses (also in
full view) and a first-rate cast.

 

For starters, The Los Angeles Philharmonic played
splendidly; this early in the season the musicians are in top-notch form.
Dudamel conducted a sweeping, galvanizing performance of Puccini’s final opera,
once again seeming to revel in the great outdoors.

 

The stars, however, were the singers and, in particular, the
Los Angeles Master Chorale (which listed 79 singers in the program) and 38
singers from the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. The latter produced creamy,
elegant sounds and crisp diction in its moments in the spotlight. The Master
Chorale — especially the men — sang magnificently both in the mightiest
sections and during introspective moments, as well. With 200 musicians on
stage, the finales to all three acts were spine tingling.

 

Ironically, given that Princess Turandot is the opera’s
protagonist, she doesn’t have the lion’s share of the singing, but soprano
Christine Brewer (the only soloist to use a score) made the most of her
opportunities. She was also the one soloist not dressed in white, at least in
the second act when wore a black dress with red wrap as she dueled with Calaf
in the riddle contest that is at the heart of the story.

 

In that second act, Brewer was positioned on that platform
behind the chorus (along with her father, the Emperor — sung by L.A. Opera
veteran Greg Fedderly). With tenor Frank Porretta as Calaf in front of the
orchestra, the spatial separation made for interesting theater although
Porretta had to swivel around to look at and listen to Brewer, then turn around
to sing; the effect was somewhat odd but not, in the end, disastrously
distracting.

 

Whether it was the amplification (which was exemplary
throughout the evening) or that she wasn’t warmed up, Brewer seemed tight,
almost harsh during several moments in the second-act riddle contest. However
during the third act, when she was downstage with Porretta (and wearing a white
dress with silver cape), her voice seemed much warmer yet ironically, also in
full, glorious bloom in her highest notes.

 

Porretta (a late substitution for Francesco Hong, who had to
bow out with laryngitis) has sung the role of Calaf many times in his young
career. He also took time to either warm up or adjust to singing in the
cavernous Bowl spaces, but he sang with increasingly ringing tones as the
evening progressed and delivered his famous third-act aria, Nessum dorma, with great fervor.

 

In some ways, the vocal star of the evening was
Korean-American soprano Hei-Kyung Hong as the slave girl, Li. In both her
first-act aria, Non piangere, Li, and
her final aria, Tu, che di gel sei cinta,
Hong’s voice soared gloriously and she sang with great emotion, although final
scene was the one significant staging gaffe; instead of killing herself with a
dagger (as called for in the libretto), she and Timur (Alexander Vinogradov) slowly
walked off the stage.

 

Daniel Montenegro, Beau Gibson and, especially, Timothy Mix
blended well as Pang, Pong and Ping. Craig Verm sang the role of the Mandarin.

 

Not every opera works in what is basically a concert setting
but last year’s Carmen and this Turandot argued persuasively for this
long-standing Bowl tradition. One reason that Turandot works in the Bowl is that it really has very little
action. The same is true for large portions of Wagner’s Ring cycle; given a stellar cast, one could easily envision the
third act of Die Walkure, for
example, being performed in the Bowl on a pleasant summer evening with Dudamel
conducting and Brewer singing the role of Brnnhilde. Ah, to dream …

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

About the supertitles: not too many years ago if you
wanted to project supertitles, you put the type (usually white) in a black box
or at least one with a solid-color background (you might have a shade of the
color but it was solid). Then along came programs like Adobe Photoshop and
Quark Xpress that allowed designers to introduce opacity into boxes so that you
could see through the box to what was behind. And did designers ever fall in
love with that concept! (I published a magazine for 26 years and plead guilty
to opacity overkill.).  The problem
is that you always have to think about what’s actually behind the box;
when it’s a white dinner jacket, the type absolutely disappears. I’ll cut the
graphic folks a little slack since they probably never got a chance to rehearse
this at night but I hope someone puts a big red note in the files for the next
time a similar scenario occurs.

Last night’s attendance was 9,254. Whether that was a
result of “carmaggedon” fears (ironic, since the 405 freeway reopened nearly
eight hours before the concert began), the crowd was 25% below the 12,831 who
came to Carmen last season.

Downbeat was at 7:32 p.m. (for a 7:30 announced start
time). Although it was undoubtedly an attempt to minimize union overtime,
starting on time is a policy I wish all arts organizations would more
vigorously enforce.

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(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.