Maryland Lyric Opera in concert delivers a sublime ‘Turandot’

In Strathmore’s glowing wood auditorium with its stellar acoustics, each familiar tune was more glorious than the last.

Maryland Lyric Opera more than delivers on its mission of “primarily serving the music” in a concert opera rendition of Puccini’s brilliant and musically dense Turandot, and it is sublime.

Normally, I don’t even like concert operas, but in Strathmore’s glowing wood auditorium with its stellar acoustics, I sat back and let the music roll out over me. Each familiar tune was a rediscovery more glorious than the last.

Alexandra LoBianco as Turandot in ’Turandot.’ Photo by Julian Thomas Photography.

Maestro Louis Salemno led the full orchestra, which filled not only the stage but spilled over into a second balcony that held an additional banda of trumpets, trombones, and saxophones. Altogether, this crew blew our minds!

Indeed, the musicians pulled off the pomp-and-circumstance forces the opera requires, but then stepped up both tempi and phrasing to maximize the emotional builds in the work. Just when you thought one couldn’t get more sound, Salemno would pointedly tap the air and the timpani, cymbals, and brass gongs would crackle and crash and that would set the whole orchestra off to explode through the air like wildfire.

If the work was demanding of the orchestral players, Puccini was punishing for the chorus — all 82 of them. Salemno built on the fine preparation by Chorus Master Steven Gathman with the singers and challenged them to go full out throughout the evening. It lent a frantic and urgent tension to the already highly dramatic work. I was especially impressed by the savagery the chorus could convey, howling for death by executioners, and reminding us all too clearly of the terror and potential destruction when citizens run amok.

Many describe Puccini’s opera as a fairy tale. This opera rendition brought us right into a community in the midst of missile raids. (It’s all too close to the current evening news.) Only the missile in Turandot is the princess herself. Called in the opera icy and cruel, she is on a crusade to execute all male suitors who seek her hand. We learn it is revenge, but mixed in there is also, to my mind, psychological trauma and a pathological personality. Her people are understandably whipped up in frenzy after frenzy.

Morris Robinson as Timur and Nicole Heaston as Liù in ’Turandot.’ Photo by Julian Thomas Photography.

It makes for a tricky opera. Turandot was Puccini’s last opera, one he did not complete. The music is dense and the harmonic structure complex. In this rendition by Maryland Lyric Opera, without the huge trappings and staging elements of grand opera, we can focus on not only the music but the psychological shading of some of the characters. New elements and choices made by some of characters emerged.

Morris Robinson possesses a bass sound of enormous power and vitality, but equally impressive was his nuanced body language as Timur when he communicated his affinity and even love for the servant girl Liù, who is in love with his son. This gave a new psychological dimension to the character and indeed tipped the theme of the opera to be resoundingly about love.

Nicole Heaston has a beautiful resonant soprano instrument that serves her well as Liù. As the servant girl of Timur’ and his son Calàf, she conveys both the purest of love she feels for Calàf and the lonely dark world she has been forced to inhabit.

In the title role, Alexandra LoBianco is commanding in both sound and presence. Her control of dynamics, reeling out delicate line pianissimo then willing to bring down walls with her forceful fortissimo, contoured a stunning performance.

Jonathan Burton as Calàf never falters vocally in making this quintessential tenor role his own and proves more than a match to warm the heart of the icy princess. His Nessun dorma, one of the greatest arias in all operatic literature, was a hit. (The song “No one sleeps,” taken up by the chorus becomes an anthem that had special resonance for me in thinking of a country facing another night of bombing.)

Calàf is a role however I never quite understood; his carelessness and even cruelty to Liu and his obsession to possess la principessa Turandot seem artificially fueled in the story. He didn’t help unlock plausibility, leaning into a more conventional approach to concert opera, allowing the gorgeous music to carry us away.

Javier Arrey (Ping), Joseph Michael Brent (Pang,) and Yi Li (Pong) in ’Turandot.’ Photo by Julian Thomas Photography.

Ping, Pang, and Pong, three palace ministers caught up in the plot, are usually etched broadly as caricaturist stooges. Here the trio of Javier Arrey (Ping), Joseph Michael Brent (Pang,) and Yi Li (Pong) find moments of truth and distinguishing characteristics, especially Arrey. He very nearly steals the show because he makes every line connect to such clear intention.

One of the revelatory moments in the evening is when these sing a trio about their homelands. Arrey breaks concert opera convention of lining up across stage in “stand and deliver’ mode. The exquisite Chilean baritone slowly drops to one knee, preparing the audience for a break from the opera’s public square, and begins a simple beautiful pastoral song about longing for his faraway home. Arrey’s attention to language and emotional connection is arresting. Puccini gave him the platform and he got it so right, plucking from a centuries-old favorite Chinese genre of Garden and Nature poetry. It is so sweet a moment, with the three men weaving and passing their memories and homesickness back and forth. These three voices are so affecting with Arrey’s impassioned sound and attention to language, Li’s sweet yearning voice, and Brent’s bright tenor cutting through the cluster. Pure beauty.

Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes with a 20-minute intermission.

Turandot played February 25 and 27 presented by Maryland Lyric Opera performing at The Music Center at Strathmore.

The Turandot program credits are online here.

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Susan Galbraith
Playwright, librettist, songwriter, director, theater reviewer, and actress Susan Galbraith has worked in London, Singapore, New York, Minneapolis, Prague, and Boston before settling in DC. Her resume includes working with international directors including Peter Brooks, Miřenka Čechová, and Peter Sellars; choreographer Takao Tomono; and rock-and-roll superstar Prince. After moving to Washington, she helped found Alliance for New Music-Theatre and in the past decade led the development of original works across the spectrum of music-theater including musicals and opera. For over a decade, she was also pleased to support the greater Washington theater community as a happy member of the reviewing team of DC Theater Scene under Lorraine Treanor. She holds a BA from Tufts University, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and two graduate degrees, including a Fulbright fellowship. She now lives in Kalorama with three cats, a happy Samoyed, and a most understanding partner. You can read more of her theater writing here.


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