Opera Carolina’s production of Turandot (Tom Diamond, director) has surely had its ups and downs with the announcement on January 16 of the withdrawal of ailing Metropolitan Opera tenor Marcello Giordani as Prince Calàf. Within a mere week of this announcement, Carl Tanner had replaced Girodani. The vastly experienced Tanner has sung the role countless times. His glorious command of the stage and music solidified a production which could well have foundered.

Canadian-American soprano Othalie Graham sang the title role, with Dina Kuznetsova as Liù and Kevin Langan as Timur. Each of these singers has appeared in a previous Opera Carolina production. The three imperial ministers supplying the opera’s comic relief were Giovanni Guargliardo (Ping), Gianluca Bocchino (Pang), and Joseph Hu (Pong), each making his debut with the company.

James Meena conducted members of the Charlotte Symphony from the pit of Belk Theater at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. Other designers were Michael Baumgarten (lighting/projection), Anita Stewart (scenes), and Anna Oliver (costumes). Wells Fargo is the season sponsor of Opera Carolina. Turandot is part of Opera Carolina’s ambitious seven-year cycle of Puccini’s operas.

Turandot has one of the oddest and grimmest story lines in all of opera. At its center is the immovable and vengeful Princess Turandot, who destroys a series of suitors who fail to answer her riddles. The opening act takes place in the streets of Beijing in legendary times. The crowd, in dull grey garments, swarmed around black platforms, some soaring to incredible heights, where proclamations were delivered and where Turandot made her first appearance. The three ministers appeared on roll-around desks which incorporated part of their dress, a skillful characterization of their inexorable roles as ministers of state. On stage right was the gong which the suitors strike to announce their candidacy for Turandot’s hand. Projections of roiling seas of blood in which masks and skulls float to the surface underscored the horrific scenes of unrelenting sorrow and oppression.

Graham was perfectly suited to the title role, which begins as a shrieking, crazed woman and then morphs into a feeling human being. The vocal demands throughout her range were huge, and she easily projected her part over the orchestra. Kuznetsova, as the sympathetic and devoted slave girl Liù, sang with both fervor and tenderness in the most dramatically convincing way. The three ministers sang the numerous extended and intricate trios with panache, most notably at the beginning of Act II, where they enhanced their roles with comical scurrying about and other delightful buffoonery. However, the evening belonged to Tanner, who owned the stage throughout the performance with his resonance, dramatic power, and sheer musicality. Tanner’s “Nessun dorma,” opening Act III, would have brought the same enthusiastic ovations on other stages as on this one.

Puccini’s evocative orchestral score, so infused with exotic melodies and instrumentations and beautifully directed by Meena, was expertly calibrated to balance both the singers and to fill the hall where needed. Another of the performance’s highlights was the large chorus (some 45 members) who were omnipresent throughout the opera. Whether they were singing in horror as witnesses or murmuring fearfully about events to come (both on and off stage), their beautifully blended sounds created the essential sonic aura for each scene. Kudos also to the dozen members of The Choir School at St. Peter’s who formed the children’s chorus and sang with such beauty and assurance. This production was certainly one to remember.

Turandot will be repeated on Jan. 29 and Feb. 1. For details, see the sidebar.