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Review: TURANDOT triumphs at Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre

Review: TURANDOT triumphs at Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre

Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre presented Puccini's epic Turandot as part of the company's Twentieth Anniversary season, January 19th and 21st at the historic Paramount Theatre in downtown Cedar Rapids, delivering a handsome production, richly adorned with all the spectacle and vocal fireworks one could hope for in a presentation of Puccini's final work.

The story of Turandot is complicated. Spoiler Alert. Princess Turandot is single and hates men. Her ancestor, Princess Lou-Ling, was brutally raped and murdered generations ago by an invading king. Turandot is haunted by this and has come up with a series of riddles to present to suitors in order to escape marriage. When the prospects can't come up with the answers they are beheaded. Prince Calaf shows up on the scene, is struck with love at first sight and vows to win Turandot's hand. He miraculously answers the riddles with success but Turandot doesn't hold up her end of the bargain and refuses to marry him. Calaf proposes his own game in return: If Turandot can figure out his name before dawn he will offer his life and she can remain free. The people of the city are charged with finding out Calaf's name and are ordered not to sleep. In their quest, Prince Calaf's father and servant are tortured. The servant, Liù, who is in love with Calaf, will not reveal Calaf's name and kills herself to support his cause. Turandot, having witnessed an innocent woman sacrifice herself in the name of love, thaws and decides she will give marriage a shot. The kingdom rejoices, confetti is thrown and the opera ends in an oddly celebratory fashion minutes after a woman has committed suicide before our eyes. Producing Turandot is a considerable feat. She requires principal singers of extraordinary skill, a commanding orchestra and chorus and a production team capable of transporting the audience to a mythical empire. In this, their first ever production of Turandot, Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre triumphed.

Under the baton of Maestro Daniel Kleinknecht, Orchestra Iowa dazzled, shaking the foundations of the Paramount Theatre, simultaneously conquering the grandeur and nuance of Puccini's cinematic score with precision. The sizable chorus was integral in creating an impressive wall of sound and delivered with gusto, while also showing their skill as an acting ensemble, convincingly crafting an atmosphere of a kingdom gone awry.

Rebecca Nash as Turandot could be heard the whole state of Iowa. Ms. Nash stepped on stage shimmering in golden robes, her stately manner declaring she was not a princess but a queen. She opened her mouth and the crowd collectively gasped as her dark, exquisite soprano lapped at the audience like warm waves on a moonlit night. Ms. Nash, who has sung leading roles at the world's most notable opera houses, burnished a Turandot resplendent with elegance, using her impressively flexible instrument to expertly color the complex temperament of the title character.

Ta'u Pupu'a as Calaf cut a noble figure as the determined prince, brandishing his heroic tenor with panache. His Calaf was a fine example of effortless singing, as he sustained crystalline high notes with ease and expertly navigated treacherous phrases, cutting off at the last possible moment. There was never any question as to whether he would succeed but as the pressure built toward that legendary aria, Nessun Dorma, the audience inched forward in their seats, erupting into cheers as Mr. Pupu'a radiated against a starry sky.

Chloé Olivia Moore as Liu and Stephen Swanson as Timur brought humanity to a kingdom run rampant with violence. Ms. Moore's shimmering, metallic soprano lilted with heartache as she sincerely delivered Signore Ascolta and Tu Che Di Gel. Andrew McLaughlin, Nicholas Nestorak and Max Zander as Ping, Pang and Pong were a tight trio, providing comic relief while impressively maneuvering through the pathos of the story.

Stage Director, William Ferrara, worked wonders, creating a cohesive and handsome production with his very capable design team. Scenic Designer Robert Sunderman sculpted an intriguing landscape of towers and bridges, illuminated sumptuously by Lighting Designer Scott Olinger. Projection Designer Kristen Geisler provided backdrops of ships on the sea, lanterns floating toward the moon and varied scapes which smartly anchored the production in a contemporary visual vocabulary. Costume Designer, Martha Ferrara, and Hair and Makeup Designer, Sarah Fried, pushed the boundaries of the fantastical and Choreographer Eloy Barragán and a corps of dancers provided glimmers of joy amidst Turandot's stormy empire.

According to studies by the National Endowment for the Arts and Opera America, approximately 5% of adults in the USA have experience an opera. Opera is an endangered performing arts genre and opera companies have a responsibility to present high-caliber productions which engage a new audience at an accessible ticket price. I was delighted to overhear a young couple in the lobby saying how unexpectedly cool the experience of attending an opera was and smiled listening to a group sitting behind me bantering back and forth confidently mispronouncing names of many of operas greatest titles. Opera is and should be for everyone's enjoyment and its survival depends upon the destruction of the pretention and classism often associated with the art form. It takes the passion and commitment of companies like Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre and its many notable peers to keep the flame burning.

Photo by Rob Merritt, Rebecca Nash (Turandot), Ta'u Pupu'a (Calaf)

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