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Peking Plaster Pealing

Kennedy Center Opera House
05/16/2009 -  & May 19, 24m, 27, 30, June 1, 4
Giacomo Puccini: Turandot
Maria Guleghina (Princess Turandot), Darío Volonté (Calaf), Sabina Cvilak (Liù), Morris Robinson (Timur), Nathan Herfindahl (Ping), Norman Shankle (Pang), Yingxi Zhang (Pong), Oleksandr Pushniak (A Mandarin), Robert Baker (Emperor Altoum), Seong Won Nam (Prince of Persia)
Washington National Opera Chorus and Dancers Steven Gathman (Chorus Master), Kate Flatt (Choreographer), Washington National Opera Orchestra, Keri-Lynn Wilson (Conductor)
Sally Jacobs (Original Set and Costume Designer), F. Mitchell Dana (Lighting Designer), Andrei Serban (Production/Stage Director)

D. Volonté & M. Guleghina (© Karin Cooper)

The Washington National Opera concludes its 2009 Spring Season with a production of Puccini’s Turandot that unfortunately leans more towards “High Camp” than towards “High Drama”! The production does however have many felicities, chief among them being the set and costume designs of Sally Jacobs and the stage direction of Andrei Serban. The original production was done for the Royal Opera House of Covent Garden. The set is a basic one-unit design that is marvelously lit by F. Mitchell Dana. It features a radiant large moon that descends in Act I, and a throne for the Emperor Altoum that also descends from the heavens above. The last Act is most atmospherically lit with Chinese lanterns in the windows. Banners, streamers, and confetti are often strewn from the top balcony. To emphasize the Chinese theater aspects, the production is replete with Chinese acrobats, Chinese dancers, and a masked Chinese pantomime troupe. These are all very effective. What the production lacks is a grand staircase for the Princess Turandot to descend during the “Riddle Scene”. This weakens that particular scene considerably.

This is the third production of Turandot I have seen by the WNO. The first production featured Eva Marton. She was truly great in the title role. The second production starred the incomparable Alessandra Marc, who is perhaps the greatest Turandot I will ever see in my lifetime, as I never heard Birgit Nilsson live in this role.
In fact Nilsson told the young soprano Marc in a Master Class that when Nilsson retired Marc would become the reigning Turandot, and indeed she has. This current production features Russian soprano Maria Guleghina. She is not in her predecessor’s league.

Ms. Guleghina possesses what the Italians call Una Grande Vociacia… A Big Ugly Voice! The great Italian conductor Tullio Serfin said the same thing about Maria Callas. Maria Callas nonetheless was a great Turandot. Maria Guleghina is not! She does possess an enormous voice to be sure, a voice that has great presence in the opera house. Unfortunately it is frequently out of tune and when she lets go with one of those loud wobbly high notes of hers the paint starts to peal right off the opera house ceiling.
She began the famous Act II aria, “In questa reggia”, in a completely different key than the orchestra and proceeded to wander in and out of key throughout the entire aria. It was most disconcerting. In fact, I heard a patron exclaim during the intermission that it was “really hard to listen to her.” Ms. Guleghina’s singing was outdone only by her outrageous overacting, which resembled something out of Brides of Dracula in a silent screen version. It is doubly deplorable considering the fact that Alessandra Marc lives twenty minutes from the Kennedy Center. A really great Turandot could have saved this production.

If that were not enough, it must be said that the conducting was truly miserable. Keri-Lynn Wilson gave as square and boring a rendition as could possibly be imaginable. She could hardly hold the orchestra together and had a train wreck in the last moments of the opera with the percussion and drums divided and the brass and strings at complete odds.
I thought it was going to come to a complete stop, but the excellent musicians of the WNO orchestra managed to make it to the end in spite of her. What was most embarrassing and offensive, however, was the obvious planting of a “claque” throughout the house that was timed to go off after the second intermission, greeting her return to the pit with loud cheering and bravo-ing. I have never heard that much noise for any conductor at a WNO performance, and there have been many great maestros to lead performances here. Keri-Lynn Wilson is certainly not one of them. She is however the wife of The Metropolitan Opera’s General Manager Peter Gelb, who attended this performance and held court in the Grand Foyer during the intermissions. Politics are fascinating in Washington, whether on Capitol Hill or in the Opera House. It is obvious that WNO General Director Plácido Domingo has as many “special interest” groups to appease, as does President Obama.

Argentine tenor Dario Volonté sang beautifully all evening. He has an “old school” sound and style. He was not the right match for Ms. Guleghina’s braying however. His voice did not have much presence in the opera house and was often drowned out by the orchestra and the soprano. His best moments came with his singing of the great aria “Nessun Dorma”. It was memorably sung with great high notes. His success in the aria however was due to the fact that for that moment he was placed in front of a Chinese gazebo that reflected his voice into the opera house. As soon as he left the gazebo the theater once again ate up his voice.

The stars of the show were soprano Sabina Cvilak as the slave girl Liù, and bass Morris Robinson as Calaf’s aged father Timur. Ms. Cvilak’s voice was exquisite and so was her singing. Her two arias were beautifully shaped and employed the use of dazzling pianissimos. They were the highlights of the evening. Her acting, unlike Ms. Guleghina, was moving and packed a great emotional wallop. Her death scene was the most convincing moment of the entire evening. Bass Morris Robinson has an imposing voice with great presence in the house. Whenever he sang he made you sit right up in your seat.
His acting, like Ms. Cvilak, had enormous authority and strength.

In fact, all of the great singing of the evening was done by the secondary roles. The trio of Nathan Herfindahl, Norman Shankle, and Yingxi Zhang as Ping, Pang, and Pong was completely delightful. Their ensembles were very well sung and their antics most entertaining. Tenor Robert Baker is one of the stalwarts of this company. His characterization of the Emperor Altoum was his best performance for this season. Robert Baker is a wonderful actor and he always sings well. Oleksandr Pushniak and Seong Won Nam also gave strong performances respectively as the Mandarin and the Prince of Persia.

The WNO Chorus, however, perhaps did the finest singing of the evening. They are one of the finest opera choruses in the United States and are always impeccably prepared by Steven Gathman. The Turandot choruses are exciting and melodically memorable. The reprise of the “Nessun Dorma” tune in the finale as sung by the entire chorus and ensemble made for a wonderful ending to most uneven performance.

The final performance of Turandot will be a concert version given on the stage of the Baltimore Lyric Opera House. Maestro Domingo will conduct this performance himself. It should raise the overall artistic level several well-needed notches upward!

Micaele Sparacino



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