Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

TurandotSarasota Opera
William S. Oser | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's reviews of Burn This, Sweat, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Perfect Arrangement

Jonathan Burton, Richard Russell (rear),
and Kara Shay Thomson

Photo by Rod Millington
Sarasota Opera's Winter Festival opens with Turandot by Giacomo Puccini. Artistic Director Victor DeRenzi and audiences had long wanted to mount this opera, but they had to wait for the restoration of the Sarasota Opera House with its expanded orchestra pit to attempt it. Turandot is a huge opera. Ideal performing conditions call for an orchestra of about 90 which includes a large string complement, triple brass, and multiple percussion players beyond the normal opera house orchestra. It also begs for large choral forces. Puccini sometimes has four separate groups of choristers singing at the same time, so bigger is decidedly better. Sarasota Opera uses an orchestra of about 70, 25 adult choristers, and a childrens chorus of about 20, decent for a regional opera house.

Turandot has been standard repertoire since the late 1950s, and is Puccini's fourth most popular opera, right behind the perennials La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. Puccini died before finishing the third act, leaving detailed sketches. It was finished by Franco Alfano, chosen by the composer's publisher.

Casting this work is no mean feat. The title part stays in the upper reaches of the soprano range and demands great power. Thankfully, it is not a long part, compared to most opera parts, most sources call it 20 minutes of music, but in truth it is a bit more than that. It is often taken by voices capable of navigating Wagner heroines. Sarasota has cast Kara Shay Thomson, a fine dramatic soprano who has essayed the title roles in Tosca and Vanessa, and Leonora in Fidelio, all parts for a singer with stamina but still short of Wagner requirements. Thomason brings a touch more warmth to "the ice princess" than is the norm and is a plus.

As her latest suitor Calaf, known for most of the opera as "the unknown prince," Jonathan Burton returns from the earlier incarnation with metal in his voice for this heroic part. As Liu, the slave girl accompanying Timur, Calaf's father, Anna Mandina sings with lovely tone and walks away with all the sympathy. Young Bok Kim is a solid Timur. The trio of Masks, Ping, Pang and Pong, sung by Filippo Fontana, Samuel Schlievert and Ganson Salmon, is a bit problematic. They are written to sing almost as one voice, their stage characters an homage to comedia dell'arte. This trio sings accurately but without the ability to really listen to each other and become one. Executive Director of Sarasota Opera makes a good impression as the aged Emperor Altoum, and Jared A. Guest opens the opera as The Mandarin.

Artistic Director Victor De Renzi does a fine job marshaling his forces. A tip of the hat to Roger L. Bingaman for preparing the chorus. Their hymn to the moon, a centerpiece of act one is beautifully done.

The production is gorgeous to look at. Michael Schweikardt's scenic designs are opulent and Howard Tsvi Kaplan's costume designs are their equal. Ken Yunker's lighting design is stunning, especially as pre-dawn becomes a blazing sun-drenched morning in act three. I am left with the feeling that Stephanie Sundine could have used a few extra rehearsals for staging the piece. She gets everybody where they need to be, but without the solid stage deportment that transforms pedestrian into a beautifully executed stage picture.

Opera began life as a populist entertainment. At the time of Puccini, recordings barely existed, let alone video performances. No matter how much recorded sound has progressed, sitting at home listening to great music can never equal the visceral thrill of live. It never ceases to amaze me how a small opera company located in a tiny city on the West Coast of Florida can produce opera on such a high level. Turandot is a challenge for any opera company. This production is a fantastic opportunity to experience Puccini's final masterpiece live.

Turandot, through March 22, 2019, at Sarasota Opera, 61 N. Pineapple Avenue, Sarasota FL. For tickets and information call 941-366-8450 or visit

Cast: The Princess Turandot: Kara Shay Thomson
The Emperor Altoum: Richard Russell
Timur, Deposed Tatar King: Young Bok Kim
The Unknown Prince (Calaf): : Jonathan Burton
Liu, a Young Slave: Anna Mandina
Ping: Filippo Fontana
Pang: Samuel Schlievert*
Pong: Ganson Salmon*
A Mandarin: Jared A. Guest*
*=Studio Artist