Two intense women
We’re supposed to worry most about Calaf in Puccini’s Turandot; he’s the tenor and the Romantic hero. He loves passionately, faces death recklessly and has lots of great tunes, most famously Nessun dorma. Friday night, Florentine Opera favorite Renzo Zulian aimed his cannon of a voice at a role that demands heavy artillery. His sheer fire power impressed, once again, but his sound was coarser than I remembered it. Zulian is not a nuanced singer and not much of an actor, a quality and a skill that might have helped create some sympathy for a guy willing to shed the blood of innocents as well as his own in his single-minded desire for a homicidal princess. As it was, I wanted Liu to go ahead and reveal Calaf’s name and get the cad decapitated.
The really interesting relation in this Florentine production is not that of Calaf and Turandot. It is between Liu, the loyal servant girl who kills herself to protect Calaf, and Turandot. The relationship is almost entirely musical, as they have few scenes together.
Rena Harms played Liu; her exquisite singing won her the evening’s biggest ovation. Puccini gave her the most beautiful music in the opera, and Harms made the most of it. Instead of “floating” the many long, quiet high notes, she sustained them, gently but firmly, on an inexhaustible supply of air and support from the diaphragam. She front-loaded the phrases to turn them into sighs. Her lyric style embodied the character even as she thrilled us with her virtuosity.
We hear a lot from Liu before we hear anything from Turandot. Lise Lindstrom’s gleaming, steely focus came as a shock after Harms’ pliant beauty, and that was just right. Together, the two women nailed the central contrast of the entire opera. Lindstrom sang implacably, like a force of nature. The formality of her body language reinforced the message; she was not stiff, but rather utterly composed and self-aware, as if she were always sitting for an Official Imperial Portrait. She looked and sounded cold and dangerous. That gave her plenty of room for a nuanced warm-up in Act 3, when she succumbed to Calaf’s charms (which it seems that only she can detect).
Surely conductor Joseph Rescigno and stage director Eric Einhorn helped them along with all this. Rescigno, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the principals and the Florentine Opera Chorus went all in for Puccini’s bombast in the big scenes, as they should have. Messy ensemble popped up here and there, as it often does under Rescigno’s baton, but that’s a trifle. He mastered the far more important tasks of pacing and of taking good care of his singers. He gave them unmistakable cues to give them confidence and controlled the volume of the orchestra make them audible.
Einhorn’s small directorial conceit put the show in the context of a modern dad reading the tale to his young daughter as a bedtime story. (The stuff of nightmares; bad dad! Bad!) I like the concept, because Turandot is in fact a 1001 Nights sort of exotic tale, full of bizarre behavior and cruelty; it’s not realistic. But the storybook idea might work better with a set built around the concept. (This one is a rental from Atlanta Opera, and it looks shabbier and plainer on stage than it did in pictures). A girl in a nightgown and dad in his PJs seemed a little weird off to one side during the wonderfully tense Riddle Scene.
Einhorn and David Kravitz, Frank Kelley and Matthew Richardson brought a nice humanity to Ping, Pang and Pong, the three bureaucrats charged with the back-end work on the execution of Turandot’s failed suitors. In many productions, they take on a Three Stooges vibe. This trio gave some comic relief, but also gave the three P’s sympathetic dimension as decent guys stuck in appalling jobs. Somehow, these highly stylized characters turn out to be the most plausibly human in the show.
Friday’s performance sold out at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. Sunday’s is nearly sold out; call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206, for tickets. There will be no Saturday showing.