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Margison saves the day in COC’s Turandot

By Denise Lai February 4, 2004

Thanks to Luciano Pavarotti and the 1990 World Cup of soccer, Turandot has been catapulted to mainstream popularity, ranking among Puccini’s best-loved operas. However, its weak story line and unconvincing ending make it hardly one of his best. Puccini actually struggled with the ending, leaving the opera unfinished before his death.

Despite all that, the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Turandot, which runs from January 21 to February 6, is wildly popular, with a seventh show being added mid-season. Part of the draw was the promise of the Canadian debut of Luciano Berio’s new ending, which sadly never came to fruition. COC's artistic director, Richard Bradshaw had a change of heart, claiming that Berio’s version does not have the same dramatic effect as the traditional one by Puccini’s pupil Franco Alfano.

The main draw of this opera is "Nessun Dorma", the best showpiece of all tenor arias. Having Canadian Richard Margison rendering this in the role of Calaf is icing on the cake. There was little fault to find in this internationally acclaimed tenor. Even though Luciano Pavarotti’s version — the gold standard of all Nessun Dormas-- is tough to live up to, Margison’s rendition was probably the best one could ever hope to hear in a Canadian opera house, although more tenderness would have made it close to perfection.

The other saving grace of the production was Italian soprano Serena Farnocchia in the role of Liu, aptly portraying the servant whose secret love for Calaf drove her to sacrifice her life for him. Her phrases were beautifully shaped and rang with emotion. She is certainly a talent to watch for.

Powerhouse Czech soprano Eva Urbanova was unconvincing in the title role. The unsuitable makeup and costumes gave her an awkward look, making it hard to believe any suitor would risk his life for her. This was particularly evident in the final act, where she looked ridiculous in her white nightgown-like outfit, appearing more like a patient wandering in a mental institution. Her singing, perhaps mirroring the coldness of her character, was unmoving and icy, and her high notes were shrilled. The kinder, gentler sound that would have been more appropriate after her capitulation to Calaf never materialized.

Gregory Dahl, Luc Robert and Michael Colvin, playing Imperial Ministers Ping, Pang and Pong respectively, delivered solid singing for the most part, but looked too awkward in their contraptions to achieve the comical effect intended in Act One. Thankfully their performance did get more animated in Acts Two and Three.

The rest of the supporting cast–Deyan Vatchkov as Timur and Peter Barrett as the Mandarin gave fair performances. John Kriter looked royally impressive as Emperor Altoum literally sitting high up on a pedestal, but he constantly struggled with pitch, perhaps as a result of his elevated position.

The COC chorus sounded magnificent under Sandra Horst’s preparation, as was the COC orchestra under Richard Bradshaw. The dramatically effective lighting more than made up for the drab costumes and minimal sets that lacked the grandeur of the Chinese court.

Despite this mediocre production, Turandot is just the kind of opera audiences cannot have enough of. Coincidentally, the COC’s recently announced 2004-2005 season is once again heavy on warhorses frequently performed in the recent past–La Boheme is scheduled for eight performances and Il Trovatore for seven, instead of the usual six. It seems the COC is confident of attracting full-houses despite the steep increase in ticket prices of up to 10%.

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