Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - February 25, 2011

A fine balance

Principals' voices complement each other beautifully in superb West Bay production

by Rebecca Wallace

On opening night of West Bay Opera's "Turandot" last week, company general director Jose Luis Moscovich announced that all the performances were nearly sold out already. With these singers, it's easy to see why.

For the love triangle at the center of Giacomo Puccini's famed opera, West Bay has assembled a trio of voices that perfectly complement each other.

Alexandra LoBianco brought a mighty spinto soprano to her portrayal of the brittle princess Turandot, while Liisa Davila's gently rippling notes made her heartbreakingly lovely as the doomed slave Liu. And David Gustafson's velvety tenor was clearly an audience favorite as he played Calaf, a foreign prince who falls under Turandot's spell.

Pleasing an audience with "Turandot" is no small feat. The vocal demands of the title role have daunted many a singer, and any Calaf must do justice to one of the most familiar arias in opera, "Nessun dorma." Opening night in Palo Alto was a clear success on both fronts. LoBianco demonstrated a remarkable command of her instrument, and Gustafson's tone was simply gorgeous.

Gustafson recently made his San Francisco Opera debut in "Cyrano de Bergerac," as Sentinel.

The story of "Turandot" has its original roots in a Persian fable, with the opera set in China. The opera was Puccini's last; composer Franco Alfano completed the unfinished work after Puccini's death.

Refusing to be possessed by a man, the princess Turandot has vowed that she will marry only a royal suitor who can solve her three thorny riddles. She has her reasons. The princess' Act II aria "In questa reggia" tells the story of her ancestor who was raped and murdered in ancient times. In turn, Turandot's unsuccessful suitors win a date with the executioner.

Enter Calaf, with his father, Timur (a poignant Adam Paul Lau, surprisingly young underneath the makeup and facial hair), the deposed Tartar king who is now a beggar aided by Liu. Calaf knows what's at stake for the princess' suitors, but he's dazzled at his first sight of her, and will not be dissuaded from trying his hand at the riddles.

Comic relief of sorts is provided by royal counselors Ping, Pang and Pong (Emmanuel Franco, Michael Desnoyers and Michael Mendelsohn). They alternately try to keep Calaf from wooing Turandot, caper about in funny hats, and dream about the simpler life away from court.

The West Bay production, whose stage director is David Cox, is set against Peter Crompton's vivid scenic design with oranges and reds as powerful as Turandot herself. A properly fierce painting of a dragon snarls on both the emperor's (Ken Malucelli) throne and the stage. The production also benefits from Moscovich's sure-footed orchestra and its rich, varied percussion.

On opening night, awkward blocking detracted from the production in a few spots. Turandot, for instance, seemed stuck upstage for long moments as she recited her first two riddles to Calaf. Far from the audience, she wasn't particularly threatening. Calaf had to look upstage for so long that his expression often couldn't be seen.

In addition, the opening of Act II, when Ping, Pang and Pong complain about the state of the court, felt flat. Their reveries about life in the provinces seemed a bit uninspired. In contrast, the trio's more humorous interludes fared better, drawing repeated laughter from the audience.

Overall, these weaker moments were exceptions in a superb production that also featured some excellent acting.

Davila in particular is a fine actress, and was given a chance to show it in Liu's touching final moments. LoBianco also nicely balanced Turandot's earlier imperious raging with vulnerability later in the production. After being drawn into a kiss with Calaf, she sang: "Let no one see me. My glory has ended," with surprising softness.

LoBianco was also beautifully costumed by Callie Floor in shimmers of icy-blue and white fabric — perfect for a frosty princess who dares not let herself melt.

What: Puccini's "Turandot," presented by West Bay Opera

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: The two remaining performances are Feb. 26 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 27 at 2 p.m.

Cost: Tickets are $35-$60.

Info: Call 650-424-9999 or go to http://wbopera.org .

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