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Turandot? Puccini's? In Raleigh? Who'd have thunk it? Since the 60s - and maybe before that - people in Raleigh and Durham have indulged in pie-in-the-sky discussions about bringing opera - grand opera - to the Triangle. Not really Grand Opera of the classic five-act French variety but grand opera in the sense of tolerably decent productions of standard repertoire items from the Italian and German schools. It's a costly business, for openers, and it takes resources that stretch even well-endowed communities - and we're not specifically talkin' about singers of substance, either, although they are important, too. There isn't a grander (there's that word again) or more complex undertaking in the performing arts. It takes sets and costumes and lighting and stage management and orchestras and experienced artistic personnel and, often, dancers and choirs. And did we mention solo singers - singers who must compete with ubiquitous recordings, some dating back over 100 years, and, more recently, telecasts and videos of world-class artists (and never mind if the tapes and DVDs actually preserve world-class performances...)? Yes, they are needed, too.
The second of two performances of Turandot, by Puccini, was presented in Memorial Auditorium on the afternoon of May 23. For the record, it was audio-described, for people who are blind or have low vision, by Arts Access, Inc. The Opera Company of North Carolina did it, and it was good. The cast came from all over, including a few people from here, or who live here now. The choruses - there were two of them - were from here. The orchestra, a pickup band of 54 or so souls, came from here, mostly. The stick-waver and stage director and the lighting person seem not to be from here. That was ok, basically, since the results didn't often resemble those quite dreadful touring productions some of us routinely label "bus-&-truck" enterprises. You know the ones - the outfits that provide those "token" operas for mixed concert series, companies that are here today and gone tomorrow.
No, the audience, which nearly filled Memorial Auditorium, saw the real thing, given in front of a shallow but flexible uni-set that was quite handsomely lit (and backlit). The opera was sung and played and otherwise interpreted in ways that long-time Triangle people could hardly have imagined possible, even a decade ago. It's a sure sign of a true renaissance in the performing arts hereabouts. And it's a pleasure to give credit where credit is due. Most of the credit must go to the ridiculously small production group that is the Opera Company of North Carolina, headed by Robert and Margaret Galbraith and nurtured by them and a handful of devotees through some painful years of growth and development that involved more than a few battles and more than a little bloodletting. In that regard, Turandot was a good pick to end the current season, for it begins with the heads of many prior Turandot wooers on pikes. (Some of them may have resembled vanquished participants in our recent Opera Wars.)
The conductor was Laurence Gilgore, of the Connecticut Grand Opera. He seemed to know the score, and from the band, headed by the Ciompi Quartet's Eric Pritchard, he elicited some excellent playing. Memorial is a pit, however, and it is far from an ideal venue for such undertakings. The (orchestra) pit in this pit of a multi-purpose hall - which looked shabbier than it seemed before the NCS moved into Meymandi Concert Hall next door, three years ago, and in which the air-conditioning seemed particularly weak, on this occasion - is too small for even 54 players, so the basses and the harp were outside the pit, on the left, and the trumpets and percussion and timpani were on the right side. This led to the afternoon's only serious balance problems - with harp and triangle and kettledrums coming at the audience from the wings, as it were. There were some minor glitches, but they were basically inconsequential - and of course this isn't Glyndebourne or even the Met. So by all normal standards, Gilgore did well, and he brought out many felicities in the score that helped underline Puccini's indebtedness to Wagner and Strauss, among others.
In the center of the stage was that aforementioned uni-set, a handsome construction that fulfilled the changing requirements quite well. It is OCNC's own set, and it was created by Ron Hahdri. Its drawback was that it was much too small - it filled somewhat less than 2/3s of the stage, inadvertently creating a picture within a large frame, sort of like a modern TV screen. OCNC's costumes were by Helen E. Rodgers. There were in retrospect too few of them - the title character looked quite un-princess-like, so she'd surely have benefited from more regal garments; Prince Calaf spent the whole time in the same drab suit; and the People of Peking looked like some scurvy band of Panamanians Noriega might have mustered for an anti-US rally, rather than anything resembling the whole imperial populace. The fine lighting was the responsibility of Ken Yunker (of Atlanta). Stage Director John Hoomes (of the Nashville Opera Association) did what he could with the set and the people he had available, and he managed their various comings and goings nicely. Chorus Master Paul Chandley's 47 or so singers projected well and sounded convincing, whether off-stage or on. The children, prepared by Judith Bruno, were effectively integrated into the crowd scenes and sang with delightful crispness.
The principals sang consistently well. The title role fit Frances Ginzer comfortably, from a purely vocal standpoint. Elevator shoes and a high headdress would have improved her stage image. She's not a Nilsson, but then who is, today? Her big aria, the famous "Riddle" scene, and her work in Act III (including the familiar Alfano ending, which begins after the death of Liù) were impressively delivered. Her voice is warmer than some protagonists - a help, all things considered. Calaf was Michael Hayes, and he did very well, too. His character is a few bricks short of a load, as someone said, and his instant infatuation with the Princess is hard to fathom, but without it, there'd be no opera.... His work in Act I held promise of bigger and better things to come, and while he's not a Corelli, there can have been no real disappointment with his singing in Act II and in his big tune and the other juicy bits in Act III. Neither of the leading characters had any serious challenges with the music. It was a delight to see and hear Christine Weidinger in a full production here; she is one of our resident treasures, and her music - she was Liù - is far and away the most affecting in the work. Marc Embree (replacing the previously announced Herbert Eckhoff) handled Timur with considerable dignity and some poignancy, particularly in the death scene. The Emperor, portrayed by John Oliver, looked fine but sounded much too youthful and virile; the part is often assigned to superannuated artists on the retired roster, for good dramatic reasons. Uwe Dambruch was the Mandarin, and he looked and sounded like a minor official of Italian stock might have sounded in China. The off-stage voice of the unfortunate Prince of Persia (there were no edits in the interest of political correctness, but think about that...) was John Cashwell. Among the many delights of this production were the performances of the exceptionally well-matched and well-balanced male trio - with Leonard Rowe as Ping, Tim Willson as Pang, and William Chamberlain as Pong. These characters dominate the opera in a very real sense, serving as the Greek Chorus of old and providing some comic relief, too. In all-star mountings, the work of these folks is often secondary to the main attractions, but here things were very nicely integrated and balanced, and these artists made the most of their opportunities.
It helped, too, that the production was titled, but the titles need some serious work. They appeared more or less on time, but when you get the audience laughing at them when there's nothing particularly amusing going on, you've got probs, and there were some of these. Two examples will suffice: in Act III, the choristers sang about prostrating themselves before the Emperor, but they did so while standing; and in the final duet, Calaf sang about feeling Turandot's trembling breasts against his chest, but they (the singers...) happened to be facing the audience....
When all was said and done, then, it was really Turandot, and it was really in Raleigh, and it was a fine afternoon in the theatre. The theatre itself may have been the performance's greatest liability. We've noted the relatively small amount of space occupied by the set, and the small chorus. It looked like something one might see on the tube, with close-up cameras that cut out lots of people. But the worst thing about this performance was the use of amplification. Granted, it was discreet, and mercifully the conductor was constantly alert and watchful. But the amplification intruded in numerous small ways and, globally injected a sort of electronic patina on the goings-on that resulted in a kind of stadium-like show after which one was left wondering what the artists really sounded like. Could Ginzer have hurled that apparently large voice over that orchestra and filled up the hall? Could Hayes? Only their hairdressers (Elsen Associates, for the record) may know for sure. It's a great misfortune for Raleigh and the Triangle and beyond that our opera house - right next door, and with a stage footprint the same size as Memorial's - is not used for opera. Of course it would cost four times as much as Memorial does, since it seats toughly 1/4 as many people. But it wouldn't require amplification.... And that would be worth a great deal.
All that said, it is clear that OCNC has "arrived." Other CVNC ers have covered earlier productions and given raves of varying degrees. The company clearly merits the praise it has earned. And the company holds promise, at last, for the fulfillment of those long-ago dreams of area opera enthusiasts. It would appear that only money stands as an obstacle at this point. Lots of money. Here's hoping the fans will come up with enough to sustain the enterprise till there is a real season - or at the very least more than a single show per year - here.
Note : William Chamberlain's next area performance will be as Don Ottavio, in Don Giovanni, with Capitol Opera Raleigh, on June 10 & 12. See our calendar for details.