Brenda Harris makes a memorable debut in Sarasota Opera’s “Turandot”

March 17, 2013

Brenda Harris in the title role of Puccini’s “Turandot” at Sarasota Opera. Photo: Rod Millington

The portents were not favorable for Friday night’s performance of Puccini’s Turandot at Sarasota Opera. Tenor Jonathan Burton fell ill with the flu and Scott Piper flew in from Detroit earlier in the day, and was rushed on stage with minimal rehearsal time.

Piper gave a creditable performance under fraught circumstances, for which he was rewarded with an enthusiastic ovation by the grateful audience. But the performance and the entire evening belonged to Brenda Harris as the Chinese ice queen princess whose heart is ultimately melted by the heroic prince Calaf.

Harris has a strong reputation among colleagues and in regional houses where she has performed. But even those positive advance kudos left one unprepared for the power and brilliance of the soprano’s staggering performance. That this was a role debut for the Illinois-born singer made it an even more impressive achievement.

Harris put across Turandot’s Act II showpiece In questa reggia with a cumulative expressive power, unleashing her top notes with commanding ease and vast waves of sound riding the aria’s climaxes in a way one rarely experiences. In the problematic final scene and love duet, Harris’s rich, gleaming tone filled the house and her seemingly inexhaustible reserves of power were simply astounding.

Harris is also a superb actress. She was aptly imperious in the early going yet for once made Turandot’s abrupt transformation with Calaf’s kiss from homicidal neurotic to smitten lover credible and human with subtle acting touches. This was as complete and vocally resplendent a performance of Turandot as one is ever likely to hear and don’t be surprised to see Harris soon taking up this role in the world’s major houses.

Harris also showed herself a gracious and generous colleague at the curtain, refusing a solo bow and applauding Scott Piper vigorously for his grace under pressure. Indeed, the tenor showed game professionalism, flying in and subbing at the 11th hour. Piper has a robust voice yet with rather dark, burly tone, his low-lying instrument lacking vibrancy and ping on top. The tenor’s timbre turns raw and shaky high up yet he managed the opera’s money shot with a clarion high B in Nessun dorma, earning the audience’s ovations.

As the ill-fated slave girl Liu, Maria Natale had the requisite youth and sweetness but a rather hard tone and shallow voice, tending to merely sing loud at climaxes in her two arias. Matthew Hanscom, Marvin Kehler and Eric Bowden were a lively and graceful commedia dell’arte trio as Ping, Pang and Pong. Young Bok Kim proved affecting as Timur, while Gage Herrmann overdid the croaking voice as the aged Emperor.

Victor DeRenzi drew sumptuous playing from the orchestra with resounding climaxes though some of the more gentle atmospheric coloring could have used a lighter touch.

The intimate Sarasota stage can’t really accommodate much of this opera’s spectacle, but Michael Schweikhardt’s sets and Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s costuming got the job done effectively within the limited confines. The chorus was superb and powerful in the big moments, fitfully grainy and unblended in the more exposed nocturnal passages. Stephanie Sundine provided graceful and fluent stage direction.

There are two more performances of Turandot 1:30 p.m. March 19 and 8 p.m. March 23.

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