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Opera Carolina concludes season with Turandot

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We had good news and bad news as Opera Carolina concluded their 2008-09 season with Turandot and littered the lobbies outside Belk Theater with announcements of the 2009-10 season to come. The good news began with the fabulous debut of Roy Cornelius Smith, from the first moment he strode confidently onto the stage as Calaf to the final notes of the famed "Nessun dorma." Set design by Anita Stewart and costume designs by Anna Oliver were starkly original.

And there's exciting news for the season ahead. Charlotte gets its first glimpse of Verdi's Otello since 1978 in October, Denyce Graves returns to star in Carmen next March, and we'll get the American premiere of Victor Davies' Transit of Venus next May.

The bad news? Stage director Brian Deedrick brilliantly illuminated the ceremonial majesty of Puccini's last opera, but he was deaf and blind in dealing with the human chemistry in Act 3. Calaf and his prize, the ice princess Turandot were hardly called upon to spark, let alone flame, with spontaneous newfound passion. Through most of the evening, the stellar women designers upstaged the principal women singers, Lori Phillips as Turandot and Jee Hyun Lim as the devoted slavegirl Liu. Uh-oh. Lim returns as Mimi in the Op Carolina production of La Boheme next January.

Fortunately, the storyline for Turandot tracks the quest of Calaf with far more fidelity than the coldness, cruelty, and weakening resistance of the title character. Conducted by Op Carolina's general director James Meena, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra consistently made Puccini's valedictory score sound like his most magnificent.

Spectacle was rather awesome, with Noah Rice as Emperor Altoum perched on top of the high scaffolding just below the level of the proscenium -- on a golden throne where the monarch's arms disappeared into the throne's godly wings. Turandot majestically entered the fearsome three-riddle trial scene from near the topmost landing, dressed all in white, veiled, and unattainable. As each of her riddles was solved by Calaf, the unveiled princess descended one level closer to her subjects and the prince who adored her ñ becoming more vulnerable and earthly in the process.

There are still rough edges to Smith's stage presence as Calaf -- more purposeful direction from Deedrick would have helped ñ but the overall impression was nobly strong. Nor were Phillips' wobbly vocal problems as Turandot at all to the detriment of her power and strength. Without the cued kiss from Calaf to sway Turandot toward love, Liu's eloquence and sacrifice had to bear the burden of the dramatic argument. Here is where Lim was at her best, showing the strength and ardor that had been missing earlier in the evening.

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