Mississippi Opera delivers with Turandot

By RICHARD WILSON,

Special to the Sun

Regardless how you slice it, Turandot is a big deal. And the Mississippi Opera recently dealt a big deal with it in Thalia Mara Hall.

Full disclosure: For my sins, I have served seven years (in the distant past) as either president or chairman of the board of the Mississippi Opera and am in the process of writing a history of this unusual organization that began in 1945 and is still existing to this day.

The first of its productions I saw was in 1948 and I have seen many since. I am, therefore, something of a primary source as to its history. For much of this period, that history has been reflected in news stories and reviews. Sadly, the news stories have virtually disappeared and, as best I can tell, the reviews have completely disappeared. So with some trepidation I “take pen in hand” to rectify the situation.

It probably passed with little notice that Thalia Mara Hall – then the New City Auditorium – opened 50 years ago in April of 1968. The first performance was by the Jackson Symphony Orchestra of a piece it had commissioned. The composer was Paul Creston and the piece was “From the Psalmist” for mezzo-soprano (Jean Madeira) and symphony orchestra. It was the capstone of the symphony’s concerts on Monday and Tuesday of the opening week.

The following Saturday and Monday, the Jackson Opera Guild (I am using the names opera and symphony had at the time) presented Aïda which had been commissioned by the Khedive of Egypt for the opening of the Suez Canal. Like Turandot, it too is a big deal. But that story is for another time.

 

Turandot is unique among Puccini’s operas in that one of the major characters is the chorus. And it is called upon to make a lot of noise – along with the soloists. In fact the first words of the opera are, in English “People of Peking” – or Beijing today.

The chorus was handled in an interesting way. Apparently, a small group of choristers memorized (or mimed) the music and did the action, while the larger part of the several choruses that composed the entire chorus sat in darkness far upstage – behind the orchestra which itself was occupying the middle part of the stage (from left to right). There are a lot of words to memorize in Italian and a lot of action to learn, so this is a solution to a problem. However, it seemed that the chorus was following the words and music on iPads or something similar, for periodically there would be a “swoosh” of light as the pages were turned in unison. Suggestion: there are programs which permit text to be shown as white on black and they might mitigate the “swoosh” in another big show.

But having said this, I must say that the chorus acquitted itself well – although I am used to a bit more noise from it at the end of the second and third act.

Now to the orchestra. I counted 23 names listed in the program and Turandot is scored for a huge band. But those who were there played the reduced score well, gave as much volume as they could, and provided a very satisfying experience. Congratulations to Jay Dean who conducted with aplomb. I could not fault his interpretation — except I personally would have liked the end of the second act to drive on to its conclusion, but that is one person’s taste.

 

Now to the singers: Turandot, herself, is quite a part. It has only about 20 minutes of singing and she does not open her mouth till the middle of the second act. Elizabeth Beers Kataria is probably not a full throated dramatic soprano, a la Birgit Nilsson (who is?), but she managed to scale the heights well and presented a good account of the role.

Maryanne Kyle as Liu was splendid. No more need be said.

Michael Boley was Calaf in a role that is associated with Pavarotti, but which I associate with Franco Corelli. He was neither, but he also gave a good accounting of himself and brought down the house with his rendition of “Nessun Dorma” in the third act.

The sets were most attractive. The orchestra and the chorus were placed within them and they worked. I would have liked a bit more illumination down stage where the action was taking place, but again that is a personal preference.

I regret that there is not time nor space for me to comment on every character and dancer and super. It must suffice to say that they all did their best and were rewarded by the cheers and applause of an excited and appreciative audience.

Now what will the encore be?

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Crisler Boone is the new executive director of the Baptist Health Foundation, responsible for helping raise money that makes any healthcare at Baptist more affordable and more comfortable.