‘Turandot’ is creative, theatrical success

Harold DuckettOur Town Arts

Put Knoxville Opera chorus master Don Townsend’s always superbly prepared KO Chorus in the hands of director Jon Hoomes and you get an oriental town filled with involved citizens in Knoxville Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot,” now playing at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium.

Knoxville Opera’s production seems to be set in the court of a provincial empire, with villagers dressed more as farmers and other working-class citizens. That may be more reflective of Carlo Gozzi’s 1782 play, “Turandot,” on which the opera is based, than many of the over-the-top productions that present the townspeople as fancy aristocrats and wealthy, social-climbing merchants, all dressed for a masquerade at the royal court.

Of course, opera loves an elaborate spectacle. It’s what the term “grand opera” usually means. But Hoomes has taken an attractive, but restrained, set made up of rented, painted flats and massive, raised platforms with lots of steps and produced a court alive with people.

The staging may not have all the sparkle, flash and glitter of more grandiose productions. But it has the feel of reality.

It also has a very tangible quality that philosophically makes a lot of sense for this story.

Othalie Graham, as Turandot; supernumeraries Lola Alapo and Linda Aldmon, as moon maidens carrying Turandot’s robe, with Harry House, as Altoum, in the background. Supernumeraries are characters that play non-singing, non-speaking parts in operas. Photo provided by Knoxville Opera

“Turandot” is about an arrogant, impossible to please, heart of ice and stone princess. Especially in this production, Princess Turandot, wonderfully sung by Othalie Graham, stands out in opposition to the pleasant, easy-going people around her.

By toning down the elaborateness of the set and the costumes of everyone else in the cast, Turandot’s obnoxious personality and decked-out (although gorgeous) costumes stand in stark contrast.

Only her father, Emperor Altoum, matches her in visual appearance. His elaborate robe, flowing beard and long hair certainly show where Turandot’s style originated. Well-performed by local singer Harry House, it’s more hair than House’s bald pate has seen in his lifetime.

In contrast to Turandot, Calàf, the exiled Prince of Tartary, brilliantly sung by Jonathan Burton, is dressed in plain, working-class clothing, much like his father, Timur, exiled King of Tartary, being held captive by the emperor.

There are members of the court whose positions are clear by their costumes. Mandarin, powerfully sung by local singer Michael A. Rodgers; Ping, the Grand Chancellor, very well sung by Brandon Hendrickson; Pang, the Majordomo, well sung by local singer Darius Thomas; and Pong, the Chief Cook of the Imperial Kitchen, also well sung by local singer Andrew Skoog, are all clearly members of the royal staff.

Ping, Pang and Pong provide much of the comic relief in the opera.

Yunnie Park, as the slave girl Liù, in the foreground, with Othalie Graham, as Turandot; Brandon Hendrickson as Ping; Darius Thomas, as Pang; and Andrew Skoog, as Pong

But it’s the performance of Yunnie Park, who sings the role Liù, the captive Timur’s slave, who comes very close to stealing the show. In Act III, her impassioned plea for the life of Calàf and her subsequent suicide are the emotional hinge of the entire opera.

The story revolves around Turandot’s conditional proposition that any man who wishes to marry her must first answer three riddles. Plenty of suitors tried and failed, the penalty for which was beheading.

Against everyone’s advice, Calàf decides to try. To everyone’s surprise, he answers Turandot’s challenge.

Calàf then turns the tables of Turandot and tells her that before he will marry her, she must guess his name.

To learn how it all comes out, “Turandot” will play again Sunday afternoon at 2:30. Tickets are still available. Check the Knoxville Opera website for ticket buying procedures.

It’s more than worth the effort.

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