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Sopranos Stottler and Amsellem Ignite Turandot

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
11/29/1998 -  and 1*, 4, 9 and 12 December 1998
Giacomo Puccini: Turandot
Audrey Stottler (Turandot), Richard Margison (29 November), Nicola Martinucci (1, 4, 9, and 12 December) (Calaf), Norah Amsellem (Liu), Stefano Palatchi (Timur), Ping (Theodore Baerg), Pang (Gary Rideout), Pong (Matthew Lord), Joseph Frank (Emperor Altoum), John Reylea (A mandarin), Keith Perry (Prince of Persia)
Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera, Marco Armiliato, conductor
Garnett Bruce (Director)

The sets were the same, the conductor was the same, the chorus and orchestra were the same. Even the director was the same. But with a new cast, this second run of Turandot at the San Francisco Opera was a whole new show. And what a difference the right singers in leading roles can makes.

In her company debut, Audrey Stottler commands the full range of vocal requirements for the role of Turandot. Imperious in her opening entrance and aria, sadistic in the riddle scene as Calaf pondered over the answers, panicked and vulnerable when he triumphantly answers the last one correctly and ultimately glowing with warmth and love by the end of the opera, Stottler’s Turandot was alive to the dramatic possibilities and nuances of the part. Her vocal palate corresponded, ranging from steely and edgy to warm and round as needed. She had no problems singing over the entire chorus and orchestra while at the same time could float delicately in the upper register to striking effect.

Equally effective but in a less overt way was the Liu of Norah Amsellem. Her ability to spin a line, shape a phrase and color the text gave her Liu a special sensitivity and appeal. Amsellem’s lyric soprano soared with ease as needed, but she sang much of the music in a more intimate, softer voice that suited the character and situation.

Nicola Martinucci has the top voice for the role of Calaf as well as the self-assured presence and dashing figure. But his assets stop there. He seemed incapable of shaping Puccini’s phrases musically and focused his attention primarily on posing well and hitting the high notes with the requisite volume and brilliance.

In his own company debut, Stefano Palatchi was an imposing Timur. Both commanding and frail, he was at once the old man dependent on his own slave and the deposed ruler accustomed to being obeyed.

While the three ministers, Ping (Theodore Baerg), Pang (Gary Rideout), and Pong (Matthew Lord), did a competent job musically, as in the run of performances earlier in the season, their characterizations, particularly Lord’s were over the top, opting for the obvious, broad comic gestures and ignoring the other, darker aspects of the characters.

And while the chorus and orchestra may have been the same, they all seemed to have upped their performances a notch and been inspired by the powerful singing of Stottler and Amsellem. The depth, blend and richness of the choral sound in the extended choral passages gave full voice to Puccini’s colorful and varied writing. The orchestra provided a plush cushion of sound under conductor Marco Armiliato’s energetic leadership.

It is ironic perhaps that the opening night audience should have been subjected to an inferior cast while the later, less prestigious run really delivered the goods. But then, the whole opera season this year has progressed on a steadily rising curve thanks to productions like this one of Turandot and singers like Stottler and Amsellem.

Kelly Snyder



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