Doing Puccini proud

It may sound like a case of overstating the obvious, but opera, when stripped to its essentials, is about voices. That's a simple truth many opera house directors forget when casting a production. Dazzling sets, lavish costumes and convincing acting often seem more important than the beauty and drama of the human voice.

That's why it's so refreshing to report that, on a purely vocal level, Michigan Opera Theatre's production of Puccini's Turandot is close to ideal. Dramatically, it may be uneven, and Zack Brown's sets, although effective, aren't as opulent as they could be. No matter. It's far more satisfying to hear singers who are up to snuff than to see a spectacle that sounds mediocre at best.

There isn't a weak link in this tremendous chain of singers. In the title role, dramatic soprano Alessandra Marc has the vocal heft to rip the roof off the Detroit Opera House. She doesn't merely sing her fortissimo high C's, she pulverizes them. Still, one wishes she would inject more vulnerability into her portrayal. She's an ice princess, yes, but she's also got a heart, however well hidden. Director Dejan Miladinovic severely limits Marc's movement. She stands stock-still, with only an occasional demonstrative hand gesture.

Canadian tenor Richard Margison's Calaf is unforced, seamless and robust. The Three Tenors have bellowed through "Nessun Dorma" so often that it's become wearisome. Margison's dulcet voice and effortless, triumphant B-natural at the aria's conclusion remind us how it should be sung. His acting is only slightly better than wooden.

In at least two cases, though, voices and acting dovetail nicely. Parisian soprano Norah Amsellem, who sings the fragile Liu, has a radiant instrument with lovely, floating pianissimos. Her pain is communicated through her voice and her acting. Her top B-flat at the end of "Signore, ascolta!" is brimming with tender pathos. Chinese bass-baritone Hao Jiang Tian is a standout as Timur, with a voice that's round, ripe and sonorous.

It's a tonic to see Ping, Pang and Pong (Frank Hernandez, César Ulloa and Jerold Siena) portrayed not as silly diversions, but as characters with a strong human side. Director Miladinovic deserves credit for that.

Suzanne Acton draws hearty singing from the chorus. Conductor Steven Mercurio coaxes the orchestra to play with a big, voluptuous sound, but with disappointingly little nuance. But forget the quibbling; this opera sings. George Bulanda frequently writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]

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