I certainly don't want it to sound like faint praise when I say that the Greater Buffalo Opera's current production of "Turandot" is solid. Because in an emotionally charged score like this final Puccini opus, solid can still be brilliant.
What I mean is that it's a production with voices which are not overwhelming but which almost always made their musical mark, and an orchestra and chorus which provided the resplendent sonorities Puccini had in his mind's ear without overshooting the mark to cover the soloists.
Credit conductor Daniel Lipton for getting a quick grip on Shea's Buffalo's cruelly diffuse acoustics. There were a few fleeting moments in Act 1 where the orchestral sonorities didn't completely jell. But after that, Lipton's command of the score was compelling and the pit version of the Buffalo Philharmonic performed exceptionally well, granting the fact they haven't played together for more than two months because of the paralyzing budget crisis.
The chorus, prepared by Frank Scinta, had a couple of early ensemble problems but was absolutely outstanding thereafter, summoning a blazing edge to the timbre of the massed voices in the big climaxes, which can thrill you right down to the bone.
As the cold and cruel Princess Turandot, soprano Martha Sheil's rich voice was always equal to the demands of the role. It didn't pin you back in the seat, but always had the amplitude to soar above the orchestra without wavering, forcing or screeching.
Opposite her as the mysterious and anonymous suitor Prince Calaf, tenor Paul Lyon produced the heroic ring required of the role, but there was frequently a slight constriction which made the sound thinner than ideal. In the big "Nessun dorma" aria in Act 3, his singing seemed somewhat liberated and he made the scene poignant by caressing the closing phrases with a sinuous touch.
Soprano Maria Pellegrini was superb in the role of the slave girl Liu, who kills herself rather than betray Calaf. Her tone was pure and well-focused, her phrasing extremely liquid, yet she still had the reserve of intensity to carry her emotional death scene without much loss of quality.
Gregory Stapp proved a fine resonant bass as the dethroned King Timur, and the often neglected roles of the court ministers Ping, Pang and Pong were excellently sung and puckishly acted by Lee Velta, James Clark and Cesar Ulloa, respectively.
Visually, the set was on the functional but bland side, while the opera's needed color was principally in the costumes. Turandot's brilliantly bejeweled gown and headdress with long train of feather patterns was an exceptional tour de force.
Stage director Anne Ewers handled the often crowded stage with a deft hand, conveying the excitement and atmosphere of fear created by Turandot's life-threatening cruelty, but allowing very little in the way of gratuitous movements.
Puccini's opera "Turandot," in Italian with English subtitles
Produced by Greater Buffalo Opera, starring Martha Sheil, Paul Lyon and Maria Pellegrini, conducted by Daniel Lipton.
Friday evening in Shea's Buffalo Theater; repeat performance at 2:30 p.m. Sunday with preconcert talk by Tom Crann of WNED-FM at 1:30.