Pacific Symphony rings in Lunar New Year with a powerful multimedia 'Turandot'

By Truman C. Wang
Tuesday, February 23, 2016

 Turandot, Act II, Designed by Eric Einhorn (Photo: Nick Koon)

Turandot, Act II, Designed by Eric Einhorn (Photo: Nick Koon)

Carl St.Clair conducts Pacific Symphony
Pacific Chorale — John Alexander, director
Southern California Children’s Chorus — Lori Loftus, director
Eric Einhorn, stage director
CAST: Tamara Mancini/Turandot, Marc Heller/Calàf, Elizabeth Caballero/Liù, Hao Jiang Tian/Timur, Dan Kempson/Ping, Jonathan Blalock/Pang, David Blalock/Pong, Ronald Naldi/Emperor Altoum, Zachary Altman/The Mandarin, Melody Yao/The Executioner.
CREATIVE/TECHNICAL TEAM: Paul DiPierro/digital media designer, Kathy Pryzgoda/lighting designer, Katie Wilson/costume designer, Ora Jewell-Busche/wig and make-up designer, Cheer Pan/choreographer, William Pruett/prop master
Saturday, February 20, 2016 at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa, California

It was exactly 90 years ago in 1926 that Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot” premiered at Milan’s La Scala Opera House.  On that bittersweet occasion, Arturo Toscanini lay down the baton after the last dying notes of Liu’s death scene and uttered these famous words, “Qui finisce l’opera lasciata incompiuta dal Maestro, perché a questo punto il Maestro è morto. (Here ends the opera left unfinished by the Maestro, for at this point the Maestro died.)”  Despite what one might feel about the opera’s xenophobic tones and fanciful chinoiserie in the score and the staging, “Turandot” is a great piece of theater with a heartfelt human story, that of an icy princess transformed by love into a human being.  In the Pacific Symphony’s highly effective concert staging of “Turandot”, one clearly sensed a beating heart behind all the mise-en-scène spectacles, thanks to a most sympathetic conductor and a top-notch cast.

 Hao Jiang Tian as Timur, Marc Heller as Calaf, Elizabeth Caballero as Liu (Photo: Nick Koon)

Hao Jiang Tian as Timur, Marc Heller as Calaf, Elizabeth Caballero as Liu (Photo: Nick Koon)

Concert opera has come a long way since the days of an orchestra and singers on a barren stage with minimal attempts at acting.  For this “Turandot”, stage director Eric Einhorn created a complete, immersive set customized for the Segerstrom Concert Hall stage, and a wrap-around projection screen showing animations of contextual Chinese scenes and props by video designer Paul DiPierro.  It effectively added a sense of epic scale to the Segerstrom modest-size auditorium.  Also new and effective was Cheer Pan’s choreography that turned the grim executioner into a lithe Ninja sword dancer (brava Melody Yao!)  Kathryn Wilson’s gleaming imperial costumes for the Emperor and Turandot were also memorable.

Carl St. Clair’s conducting was, in a word, splendid.  He succeeded in bringing out the human qualities in Puccini’s harmonically exotic and complex score, often slowing down to savor the tender moments as in Timur’s pleading in Act 1, or taking dramatic pauses as in the Three Riddles scene.  Even the three comedic cardboard characters of Ping, Pang and Pong sounded almost human in their Act 2 nostalgic “Hunan” episode, thanks to maestro St. Clair’s genuine sympathy for the score.  It’s worth mentioning that the full battery of percussions were placed on a high platform above the rest of the orchestra, effectively showing off Puccini’s musical innovations for his final masterpiece, among which are the triangle, celeste, glockenspiel and xylophone for the exotic chinoiserie effects, as well as the otherworldly sound of Turandot’s maids in Act 1 (“Silencio!”) heard on the clarinet, celeste and slow-beating snare drums.

 Dan Kempson (Ping), Jonathan Blalock (Pang), David Blalock (Pong) / Photo: Nick Koon

Dan Kempson (Ping), Jonathan Blalock (Pang), David Blalock (Pong) / Photo: Nick Koon

The superb cast was a reminder that, despite its Chinese subject and many genuine Chinese folk tunes, “Turandot” is an Italian opera through and through.  The aforementioned three masks Ping, Pang and Pong hail from the time-honored tradition of the Italian commedia dell’arte, and they were sung and acted winningly by Dan Kempson, Jonathan Blalock and David Blalock (with the customary cuts).   Soprano Tamara Mancini sported a fresh, ample, imperious voice as the Icy Princess in her big Act 2 aria “In questa reggia”, telling us the reason for Turandot’s riddles and her hatred of men, and in describing the death cry of her ancestor Lu-o-Ling, thinned her voice to a poignant half-tone.   Ms. Mancini succeeded in portraying Turandot as a woman behind her steely exterior, spinning lots of gorgeously floated high notes.  Her aria slowly built up to a climactic duet with the Calaf of tenor Marc Heller, whose expressive singing, dramatic accents and ringing high C’s were a powerful match for Ms. Mancini.  His big Act 3 aria “Nessun dorma” was taken at a more leisurely tempo than usual, robbing some excitement but adding more contemplation and depth.

As the last of Puccini’s ‘Little Girls’, the good Liu sings “Signore ascolta” in Act 1, a genuine Chinese folksong but it’s completely refashioned with western harmonies and Puccini touches.   Soprano Elizabeth Caballero (last seen as Violetta in Pacific Symphony’s “La Traviata”) delivered a heartrending account of this sweet, sentimental aria as well as Liu’s Act 3 suicide aria “Tu che di gel sei cinta”.   Rounding out the uniformly excellent cast were veteran bass Hao Jiang Tian’s Timur, baritone Zachary Altman’s Mandarin and tenor Ronald Naldi’s Emperor Altoum. 

 Turandot, Act II Scene 2, Three Riddles Challenge- Success! (Photo: Nick Koon)

Turandot, Act II Scene 2, Three Riddles Challenge- Success! (Photo: Nick Koon)

 Turandot, Act III, Love triumphs  (Photo: Nick Koon)

Turandot, Act III, Love triumphs  (Photo: Nick Koon)

The very capable Pacific Chorale sang the all-important role of the ‘People of Peking’, shouting praise of glory to the Emperor or humming softly at the executions of Turandot’s ill-fated suitors.  Finally, the Southern California Children’s Chorus sang the Chinese “Jasmine Flower song” (again harmonized in the western fashion) with pure angelic voices, looking totally adorable in their white robes and carrying white hanging lanterns. 

Partly in celebration of the Chinese New Year, the Pacific Symphony went all out in the chinoiserie department by decking the concert hall lobby with colorful lanterns and lion dance puppets.  The festive atmosphere extended to inside the auditorium where, to the surprise and delight of the audience, bursts of confetti rained down during the opera’s ‘Love Triumphant’ finale. 

As a lover and early adopter of new technologies himself, Puccini would have no doubt approved of this powerful and innovative multimedia presentation of “Turandot”. 

 Final curtain call  (Photo: Nick Koon)

Final curtain call  (Photo: Nick Koon)

 Happy Lunar New Year!  

Happy Lunar New Year!  


Truman C. Wang is editor-in-chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.