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Opera review: Gustavo Dudamel conducts 'Turandot' at the Hollywood Bowl

July 18, 2011 |  5:27 pm

"Carmaggedon," schmarmaggedon. The freeways flowed Sunday evening. And if the turnout for “Turandot,” Gustavo Dudamel’s Hollywood Bowl night at the opera this summer, was less than the 13,000 who came for his “Carmen” last year, a crowd of 9,254 is still a healthy box-office figure.

Those of you who stayed home to make the trip easier for the rest of us, you missed a wild and wonderfully old-fashioned night of over-the-top opera. But thank you, and here’s your reward: KUSC will broadcast the performance on Aug. 13 at 2 p.m. Mark your calendars.

This was Dudamel’s first time conducting Puccini’s final opera. It was also the first Turandot for the warm and glorious Wagnerian and Straussian soprano Christine Brewer, to try out the role of the ice princess.

Dudamel-gallery There were "Turandot" veterans as well. The Korean soprano Hei-Kyung Hong had been Liù in the Los Angeles Opera production of “Turandot” in 2002 and sang the role of the slave girl again two years later in a concert performance by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in the amphitheater. Tenor Frank Porretta, who appeared as Calaf in a “Turandot” at Opera Pacific in 2004, was asked to fill in for Francesco Hong, indisposed with laryngitis.

But mainly the attention was on Dudamel. Last summer, the rumor was that he was being groomed to become the next music director of La Scala. Now the rumor is that negotiations are taking place in Milan. An editorial in the June issue of the influential British magazine Opera called the prospect of a 30-year-old Venezuelan with limited opera experience at the iconic Italian opera house desperate and cynical. “For the sake of La Scala and … Dudamel himself, let’s hope that both sides will come to their senses,” John Allison concludes his tirade.

Dudamel’s first “Turandot” was an exuberant show, not meant for finicky Milanese but for us. It was a concert performance, outdoors. Amplification was aggressive, and Dudamel went in for big musical effects. Puccini’s old China was in bizarre and brilliant bloom, with the glitter of a big percussion section and with brass choirs on both sides of the stage for antiphonal effects, which the loudspeakers honored.

The Los Angeles Master Chorale and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus sang out with impressive fervor. When they glimpsed the moon, which was handsomely projected on the shell bathed in dark blue light, they turned pleasantly mystical.

Brewer This was a night for big, blustery voices and unkempt emotion. Anticipation was high for Brewer’s first Turandot, but the 55-year-old soprano may have waited too long. Puccini gives her little chance to warm up for her big scene presenting riddles to Calaf -- if he solves them, he wins her; if not, he loses his head. She was not a cold, cruel Turandot but an anguished one.

She swooped for high notes, missed them and then, either out of desperation or by design, compensated with a kind of flattened blues-note arpeggio that might be enjoyed as a little jazzing up the part. By the end of the evening, her control had improved, and she revealed many of the qualities that had made her such a soaring Isolde in the L.A. Philharmonic's "Tristan Project."

Porretta Porretta, a tenor from New York, loves to belt, and he can. For the video screens, the camera zoomed in on his open mouth, his bushy, long ponytail  and his earring catching the gleam of the stage lights, as he held -- and held -- Calaf's stirring high Cs. They don't tend to make them like that anymore.

Hong, elegantly dressed, was a more overwrought Liù than she had been in the past here. But conditions would hardly permit a pitiful, mousy slave girl making much of an impact.

With his plush Russian bass, Alexander Vinogradov was an usually vital Timur, the aged and exiled Tartar king. Timothy Mix, Daniel Montenegro and Beau Gibson were more careful than carefree as Ping, Pang and Pong. Greg Fedderly was the Emperor and Craig Verm the Mandarin.

Dudamel’s most impressive accomplishment was to bring the best out of everyone. He rarely lingered, nor did he see this as an occasion to single out the opera’s most sophisticated atmospheric passages. He concentrated his enthusiasm, instead, on making the cast, the occasion and the opera seem special.
That is not a spirit necessarily obtained slaving away in an obscure, provincial Eastern European opera house where Dudamel’s detractors would banish him for a decade or two to learn an opera craft he already practices with a rare ardor and competence. Of course La Scala wants him.


For Christine Brewer, the diva act stays onstage

Opera review: Gustavo Dudamel conducts 'Carmen' at the Hollywood Bowl

A Welcome New Ending

-- Mark Swed

Photos: top, Gustavo Dudamel conducts Puccini's "Turandot" at the Hollywood Bowl Sunday night; middle, soprano Christine Brewer; below, tenor Frank Porretta. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times.