Turandot (Chorus Pro Musica)
Last Sunday at Jordan Hall, Boston’s Chorus Pro Musica wrapped up its 2008-09 season, while Jeffrey Rink concluded his tenure as the group’s music director. Appropriately, Puccini’s final opera, Turandot, was the work presented, and it received a spectacular reading by the chorus, in peak form, an excellent orchestra, and a superlative group of singing actors. Chorus Pro Musica has often programmed operas in concert version, but, in honor of the group’s 60th anniversary, and Rink’s departure, the chorus sang its collective heart out on Sunday. And Turandot afforded them ample opportunity.
In addition to abundant, brilliant choral writing, Turandot features lush orchestral sonorities, tinged with Asian colorings, and some of Puccini’s most glorious arias. The composer was emerging from a period in which he had experimented with the Wagnerian concept of a seamless musical flow, without the continual interruptions of solo set pieces. Operas from that period such as Girl of the Golden West have brief, solo monologues instead of structured arias. Puccini’s last opera marks his return to unabashed lyricism, and arias like Nessun Dorma are now among his most popular. Turandot is also the grandest of Puccini’s work, one in which he leaves behind the simpler human melodramas of his Verismo operas, like La Boheme and Madama Butterfly. The tale of an icy Chinese princess whose heart is warmed by a fearless stranger is set on a magnificent scale. With the exception of Liu, the principal characters are virtually symbolic, larger than life figures. And certainly, the roles require major voices to do them justice.
Despite its ancient Chinese locale, Turandot is a true Italian opera, and, therefore, the primary focus is on the solo singing. The cast assembled for Sunday’s performance was uniformly first-rate, one that would not fail to impress in any of the world’s major opera houses. Though performed in concert version, the opera was semi-staged, with the singers acting out their parts at the front of the stage before the orchestra and chorus. The title role was sung by Othalie Graham, a remarkable Canadian soprano who has made something of a specialty of the grueling role, and has apparently survived unscathed. Her voice is sumptuous, with firmly-focused, penetrating high notes that subjugated the other onstage performing forces. Those awesome high C’s were made even more impressive by her dead-on intonation. Possessing beauty, temperament and superb acting skills, Graham is destined for stardom in the world of opera. The Met would do well to snag her for their roster.
As the heroic Calaf, who nearly loses his head over the mysterious princess, tenor Kip Wilborn was excellent. Like that of Graham’s, Wilborn’s full-throated sound was scaled for a venue much larger than Jordan Hall. With its baritone color, his voice was secure in the low register, though occasionally inconsistent in the middle. However, his thrilling high notes more than compensated, and rang through the hall with trumpet-like clarity. His Nessun Dorma was nicely realized and very well received.
A graduate of the BU Opera Institute, Eleni Calenos performed the role of Liu, the unfortunate slave who sacrifices her life for her beloved Calaf. Waif-like in stature, Calenos nonetheless produced an impressive sound, proving, along with great recorded Lius like Tebaldi, Caballe and Scotto, that the part is well-suited to a larger voice. The only element lacking in her fine singing was a true, high pianissimo, which is de rigueur for this role. Yet Calenos phrased sensitively, and was an ingratiating stage presence.
Transforming from a Czech peasant in BLO’s recent Bartered Bride to Ping, the Grand Chancellor of China, baritone David Kravitz chalked up another fine characterization to his growing list of accomplishments. A fine comedian and solid singer, he is always enjoyable to hear and watch. With respect to repertoire, he cannot vie with the astounding Frank Kelley, who added the role of Ping to his voluminous resume. Along with Charles Blandy as Pong, he added surefire comic relief to this solemn fable. Todd Robinson’s warm basso was nicely suited to the part of Calaf’s father, Timur. He was quite moving in his Act III farewell to Liu. A veteran of the Boston operatic stage, Richard Conrad appeared in the small role of Turandot’s father, the supreme ruler of China. Having warmed up vocally, he created a wonderfully regal emperor.
The contributions of the chorus and orchestra cannot be overstated. Jeffrey Rink was in firm control of his legion of performers, down to cueing the delightful children’s chorus that was nestled in the balcony. He conducted with total authority. His tempi were, for the most part, fleet; though he provided a spacious framework for Liu’s lyric arias. The opera’s rousing finale drove the appreciative audience to its feet, and left us hoping to see Rink someday return to Chorus Pro Musica in the role of guest conductor.