Party fever and traffic gridlocks notwithstanding, the culturati and the glitterati flocked to the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) for the gala of Puccini’s “Turandot.” After two years of t-shirts, shorts and jogging pants, the crowd dry-cleaned their formals and Filipiniana to dress up for the theater. No arrivistes or social climbers here. The theater was packed with the people who were keen to watch live opera again.
For the director Maestro Vincenzo Grisostomi Travaglini and assistant director Prince Ravivaddhana Monipong Sisowath or Prince Ravi, the same Rome-based artistic team behind CCP’s Verdi production of “Lucia di Lamermoor” in February 2020, it was like a homecoming for them. “Turandot” was their third project with CCP since “L’Elisir d’amore (Elixir of Love)” in 2017.
Through the years, amid economic challenges and the high production cost of the opera, arts patroness Zenaida Tantoco, president of the Philippine Italian Association and chairperson/CEO of Rustan Group of Companies, has been bravely promoting operas here. This production was done in partnership with CCP, the Italian Embassy and the Filipinas Opera Society.
Prince Ravi was born to royalty in Cambodia, grew up and studied in France and has been living in Italy for over 25 years. He’s like the spokesperson/interpreter/diplomat/PR of the visiting team.
He explained that the director’s vision was to make “Turandot” more appealing to a younger audience and to encourage them to appreciate operas. “It’s to awaken the same feelings when I attended my first opera in Paris at 19,” he said.
Then a student, he watched “Don Giovanni” and was awestruck by the powerful voices, Mozart’s music and the detailed production design. This postpandemic production focused on the narrative instead of the pomp and pageantry associated with “Turandot.” To the uninitiated, the supertitles or surtitles, the translations projected on the screen above the set, helped the audience to understand the story.
A pupil of the legendary Luciano Pavarotti, Italian tenor Alessandro Liberatore played the errant Prince Calaf. Yet, audience members who had seen “Turandot” many times observed that his rendition of “Nessun Dorma,” a dramatic bravura showpiece for any tenor and his climactic notes in the opera’s conclusion, merely elicited polite applause that night.
The lush-voiced Korean Lilla Lee performed the callous Princess Turandot. The audiences rooted for the local cast. The lyrical Rachelle Gerodias played Liu the devoted slave. Her Korean husband, baritone Byeong-in Park as Ping, and tenors Ervin Lumauag as Pang and Ivan Nery as Pong were arguably the scene-stealers that night as the court’s jaunty high officials.
Prince Ravi noted that the main cast members were very experienced and always gave their best. “We worked with most of them in previous operas, and we know each other very well. The Asian touch was also crucial in the choice of the soloists and the participation of a well-known Italian tenor,” he explained.
Since “Turandot” entailed substantial choral work, he commended the efforts of choral director Camille Lopez Molina and her husband, Pablo, and baritone/choirmaster Noel Azcona.
“They put together young talents from every corner of Metro Manila. Some sang in ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ in 2020,” said Prince Ravi. “They are clever, attentive and very respectful toward their teachers.” He added that Travaglini expressed his appreciation for the voice ensemble’s dedication and gentle behavior.
Prince Ravi said Italian guest conductor Valentino Favoino “fell in love” with the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra. They worked in perfect harmony to bring out the intimacy and complexity in Puccini’s music.
“I will cherish every single minute spent together with all the artists, the creative team, the technicians backstage, the colleagues of the CCP. We united our strength to put together an opera that was complemented by the fabulous dancers of Alice Reyes Dance Philippines and the adorable children of the Mandaluyong Choir,” he said.
Busy with the production, they had no time to go sightseeing. “At the end of each rehearsal, we had to meet with the creative team for necessary adjustments,” he added.
Fortunately, they managed to meet up with yet another old friend, Italian restaurateur and opera lover Emilio Mina. Some members of the artistic team had dinner and wine at Mina’s Caruso, a tradition on every visit to Manila.
“Emilio enchanted us with his delicious food and his charming Italian songs,” he said.
Asked if there are plans for another opera here, he replied, “We are very superstitious in the world of art. We shall tell you when we will be back again.”