The current offering of the Piedmont Opera, Puccini’s masterpiece, Turandot, benefits from the superb musical performances by soloists, choruses and orchestra and the highly effective use of projections to replace the scenery which conventionally remains fixed during each scene. This performance, led by Maestro James Allbritten, Artistic Director of the Piedmont Opera, in the Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, benefits from the constant updating of the background (with the exception of a couple of facile and somewhat tasteless slides) envisaged by the Lighting and Projection Designer, Norman Coates.

The advance press for the Piedmont Opera billed this production as “semi-staged,” leaving an implication of “half-baked.” There was nothing half-baked about this production – indeed it was perhaps more moving than a fully-staged version which actually asks more from the audience in terms of “suspension of disbelief” than the acknowledgement that this is a play with music, not a bit of the evening news.

Written hardly two decades after the bloody Boxer rebellion roused people’s superstitious fear and loathing of things oriental, Puccini’s last (and indeed unfinished) opera uses a dozen authentic Chinese folk tunes, the first touchingly intoned by the hushed mourning voices of the Winston-Salem Children’s Chorus. The entire score is replete with pentatonic writing, and many allusions to polytonality. James Allbritten describes Turandot as “not only Puccini’s greatest opera, but his grandest.”  I heartily concur!

Carter Scott was impressive in the title role of Turandot. Her dark soprano exudes power, even above the opulence of the massed chorus and orchestra. Her nameless suitor, the tenor Jose Luis Duval has a warm rich voice and an expressive face which betrayed the mental turmoil of solving Turandot’s riddles. Unfortunately the top of his register was sharp in the first two acts, but settled enough to be spot-on in the most famous aria of the opera, “Nessun dorma,”  “No one sleeps” while all Peking tries to unearth his identity.

But my heart was stolen (and broken) in the third act by Jill Gardner, soprano, singing the role of the slave, Liù, whose moving “Tu, che di gel sei cinta” (“You, who are gird by ice”, referring to the icy cruelty of Turandot) was the emotional highlight of the entire evening. Close to it was the compassionate blind and exiled King Timur, sung by the magnificent bass-baritone Jake Gardner, and who followed the lifeless body of Liù (his wife, off-stage), still clinging to her hand.

Centering, elucidating and focusing the action were Joshua Conyers as the Mandarin and William Beck as the Emperor Altoum, Turandot’s father. Important social commentary and a bit of comic relief from the constant threats of beheading are provided by the Cabinet Ministers, Ping (Chris Ervin), Pang (Marvin Kehler) and Pong (Adam Ulrich).

The chorus, in costume but singing from scores, was a powerful group, inciting, protesting, soothing and sympathizing with the protagonists much in the style of a Greek chorus in a play by Euripides. Their entrances and exits served to emphasize the public or private nature of the drama as it unfolded.  And their rich tone was part and parcel of the magnificence of the music.

It is not unheard of to see the orchestra on-stage, from the Redoutensaal (Vienna) to the Opera Carolina’s (Charlotte) recent production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (see review of March 7, 2009). Dressed in black and using stand lights, the unobtrusive but large 60-piece orchestra (with nearly a dozen pitched gongs and other assorted strange percussion instruments) would never have fit into the pit of the Stevens Center; the Piedmont Opera could not otherwise have presented Turandot, a convincing argument for placing the musicians on stage! It has its share of risk, though, as several times in the first act the orchestra threatened to drown out the soloists. But Maestro Allbritten, who knows all about these things, steered the tight narrow line between passion and reason, exuberance and control in the gorgeously orchestrated score by the genius who was Puccini.

I hope, after this success and the success of Aida a few seasons ago, that we will perhaps see a Pelléas et Mélisande (Debussy), a Boris Godunov (Mussorgsky) or a Götterdämmerung (Wagner) on the stage of the Stevens Center. We deserve it and Piedmont Opera can deliver it!

Turandot will be performed by the Piedmont Opera in the Stevens Center on Tuesday, April 13 at 7:30 p.m. See our calendar for details.