After some worrisome developments, including the bankruptcy of the Florida Philharmonic earlier this century, cultural life in the Sunshine State is on an upswing, fueled by a rising population of permanent residents seeking to avoid less accommodating climes and tax environments. Palm Beach Opera, founded in 1961 as Civic Opera of the Palm Beaches, presents a modest season of four productions but also engages heavily with the local community and hosts annually a prominent gala fundraiser featuring a solo recital by a guest vocal artist. Since 1992 it has performed in West Palm Beach’s Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, an attractive modern venue with soaring glass walls that serves as the metropolitan area’s main theater for live arts. Under the direction of Daniel Biaggi, who recently stepped down after fourteen years as general director but was seen in the audience at this premiere performance of Puccini’s final opera, Turandot, the company grew in stature and quality. Biaggi has been ably succeeded by David Walker, who proudly announced that the production run has sold more tickets than any other Palm Beach Opera production in the past ten years. Pessimists who lament the decline of classical music should take note of this intrepid company, along with other regional theaters that regularly post comparatively better numbers than that famous one in New York with its forests of empty seats.
Allen Charles Klein’s production of the tale of a narcissistic Chinese ice princess who is conquered by the wit and charm of her suitor (albeit aided by the little-mourned sacrifice of the woman who truly loves him) has been around for nearly forty years. It is owned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago and has appeared here as well as in Miami, Houston, Dallas, and San Francisco. It has held up well and veers toward what might be described as stylized traditional. It did not anticipate the Met’s busy, representational production by Franco Zeffirelli, which seems fated to remain forever in place. Rather, it magnifies tropes of ancient China to accompany the action without overwhelming it. The imperial palace that dominates Act II, for example, is suggested by a dragon sculpture and an enormous pearl: the effect is quickly internalized by the audience and encourages a refined focus on the characters.
The evening’s star was the rising soprano Leah Crocetto in her company debut, a casting victory indicative of Palm Beach Opera’s rising stock among American opera companies. She was not chosen for Turandot, which requires a heavier voice, but for the role of the sacrificial slave girl Liù. She tends Timur, the blinded father of the tenor hero Calàf, because Calàf, whom she adores, once smiled at her. In the end she kills herself rather than reveal his identity to Turandot, since knowledge of his name would permit the princess to kill rather than marry him. In shimmering slivery tones, Crocetto delivered the part with moving sympathy, placing an exquisite trill on the word “sorriso” (“smile”) when she reveals her devotion in Act I. She was equaled by the revelatory Italian tenor Stefano La Colla, also in his company debut, who sang a bright and clarion Calàf. The role’s greatest challenge, the famous aria “Nessun dorma,” unfolded with an exciting charisma that I have not heard in the part since Pavarotti and Domingo. The Russian bass Evgeny Stavinsky, another newcomer to Palm Beach, sang a stentorian Timur. The promising young baritone Zachary Nelson made a strong impression as the courtier Ping.
The opera’s title role is one of the repertoire’s most difficult. It allows no onstage warm-up before the treacherous aria “In questa regia,” Turandot’s account of the ancestress whose brutal murder by a lover inspires her deathly riddles, which a suitor must answer correctly to win her. If he fails, he is executed. The soprano Alexandra Loutsion got off to a rough start, straining on high notes that seemed beyond her. She fared rather better with the part’s piano lows before rising more resolutely to the challenge in the final scene, when she overcomes her fears and insecurities to surrender her love to Calàf.
The company’s chief conductor, David Stern, son of the celebrated violinist Isaac Stern, led a solid performance, though sometimes Puccini’s exquisite first act—widely regarded as the best act in his entire oeuvre—dragged a bit. The chorus sang strongly under Gregory Ritchey’s direction. Palm Beach Opera tends toward a conservative repertoire. Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin will conclude its 2019–20 season.