The Metropolitan Opera is on a run of Turandot, the opera by Puccini—his last. In fact, he was unable to complete it, before dying in November 1924. The most common “completion” of the opera is that of Franco Alfano, which the Met uses.
It also uses a production by Franco Zeffirelli, from 1987. This is a production that puts the “grand” in “grand opera.” It is grand and glorious. Zeffirelli’s production throbs and beguiles and chills and bedazzles along with the opera. It suits the opera perfectly. It is one of the best productions—of any type—extant.
Many years ago, a critic lamented that this production was “critic-proof.” Critics railed and railed against it, but they were unable to kill it off. The reason is, the public loved it so much, and the Met bowed to the public.
The public is not always right (heaven knows). I think the people are nuts on any number of things. But on Zeffirelli’s production of Turandot—I have to hand it to them.
Reading a review of a performance of Turandot, you want to know about the soprano singing the title role (of course); the soprano singing Liù; the tenor singing Calàf; and so on. But the most important participant in a Turandot is the conductor—for it is on him that the overall character of the performance depends.
Of course, I could say this about almost any opera (and I do).
Our conductor on Saturday night was Marco Armiliato, the veteran Italian. I believe he is underrated, for this reason: he is consistently good, consistently capable—bankable. Therefore he might be taken for granted. He has no airs or eccentricities, as far as I can see. Therefore people might say, “Ho hum.”
I say: good.
Armiliato conducted a sure-handed Turandot. Having saluted him—applauded him—I will pick on him a little.
When Ping, Pang, and Pong entered in Act I, their music was out of coordination. I couldn’t quite figure out whose fault it was. But we know where the buck stops.
Armiliato tapered off at the end of “Signore, ascolta,” obviously wanting, or allowing, the audience to applause (which they did). I say: on with the show.
The final pages of Act I, in my view, were overly deliberate and managed. These pages did not have their marvelous, inexorable sweep.
“Nessun dorma” was a little cutesy, for my taste. It was warped, stretched out, toyed with. There were annoying little pauses and hesitations. I thought the aria was robbed of some of its structure, its wholeness. Its arc, if you like.
Also, Armiliato, or somebody, turned the aria into a concert aria—as though Pavarotti were singing in a stadium. The aria was disconnected from the opera, given a concert ending. This is not what Puccini wrote, as far as I know: he wrote it in a “through” fashion. After the ersatz ending, our tenor stood there, arms extended, basking in a prolonged ovation.
I thought this was cheap. Then again, I think, “Oh, lighten up. This is grand opera, not the B-minor Mass.”
The “Nessun dorma” theme is introduced toward the end of Act II (I believe). When Armiliato introduced it—he did so with fantastical beauty and tenderness. And to repeat myself: overall, he was excellent, as we are accustomed to (too accustomed?).
In the role of Timor was James Morris, the bass-baritone—who, according to the calendar, is seventy-four years old. The calendar must be crazy. Morris is still the loudest person on stage—and it is a good loud. Is he still up for Scarpia and Wotan? Let me put it this way: I would rather hear him in those roles, even now, than hear many another in them.
Liù was Gabriella Reyes, an American soprano. She was lovely, lyric, and Liù-like. She was better in Act III than in Act I. She had everything, I think, except high pianos—that floatiness you want from a Liù. But she touched hearts, which you probably want even more.
Our Calàf, our tenor, was Yusif Eyvazov, from Baku. Once, when Ben Heppner walked out onto the stage—I believe it was Les Troyens—I did not recognize him. I looked in my program to see whether he had been substituted for. But it was, indeed, Heppner—who was half his former size. In my review, I referred to him as “half a Heppner.”
Eyvazov, too, has slimmed down considerably. How about the voice? It is intact. It rings, as before. It often has a little bleat to it, but that never killed anyone. What’s more, Eyvazov always gives you the impression of giving his all—probably because he is. He is “committed” in a performance, which is worth a lot.
Ping, Pang, and Pong? The first of those was Hyung Yun, who projected dignity and venerability. Next were Tony Stevenson and Eric Ferring, who sang with outstanding security and beauty.
In the title role—that voice-wrecker—was Christine Goerke, the magnificent American soprano. She is best known for German roles, and this is an Italian one, as you know. Goerke was not at her best in Act II. What Turandot is, you know? But she had her power and her musical IQ. In the next act, she was gratifyingly Goerkean.
On the Met’s website, we see the following: “Read the program note for Turandot, which includes a discussion of the opera’s cultural insensitivities.” That program note—I would call it an essay—is by Christopher Browner, and it is a superb one. It is well-informed, interesting, and beautifully written.
At the end, Browner describes Turandot as a “thrilling yet problematic masterpiece.” I myself think it is problematic—because Puccini died before finishing it. Other people think it is problematic, however, because the opera is guilty of “cultural insensitivities,” as the Met’s website says.
In the old days, Puccini was hailed for his liberality. For his cosmopolitanism. For his curiosity about the broad world around him—even very, very far away from him. He cared about other cultures and their music. He incorporated that music into his own operas. Madama Butterfly is Japanesey (as distinct from Japanese). La fanciulla del West is American-ish. Turandot is Chinesey.
This extraordinary composer, Puccini, liked to slip into other people’s skin—and he was really good at it.
In our present day, many like to damn Puccini as a colonizer, a King Leopold, a “cultural appropriator.” He is not honoring other cultures, by borrowing from them, or incorporating them, he is dishonoring them. (These critics ought to see what Bach did with French overtures, Italian caprices, Irish jigs, etc.)
I have written an opera review here, and I’m not going to launch into a cultural essay. (In 2016, I wrote an essay called “Killing Aida: A mortal threat to art.” I have little to add.) But let me make maybe two points.
Turandot, like the other Puccini operas, is an Italian opera. An Italian opera with Chinese elements. If you would rather have your Chinese opera straight—purely and genuinely Chinese—there are many, many such operas to choose from. Vive la différence, vive la variété.
In Saturday night’s cast, there was no Italian, to my knowledge, except for the tenor portraying Emperor Altoum (Carlo Bosi). You had cast members from the United States, Azerbaijan, South Korea . . . Music leaps boundaries and always has, thank God.
Maybe I could end on a footnote. Sometime during the first intermission—which took almost an hour—a member of the low brass, in the pit, was playing some familiar music: not from Turandot but from Die Meistersinger, Wagner’s opera, which will open at the Met later this month. It was sort of neat to have that preview.