By Judith Malafronte
NEW YORK — The Metropolitan Opera’s opulent old Franco Zeffirelli production of Turandot provided the perfect grandeur for the season’s second night on Sept. 23, and soprano Christine Goerke, a house favorite, generated plenty of excitement with her first local appearance in the title role. The massive, intricate, visually powerful 1987 mounting, along with the consistently crowd-pleasing Zeffirelli La Bohème, is all that remains of the Italian director’s work for the institution, so it’s no surprise that the auditorium was packed with folks who love Puccini’s fairy-tale opera and this blockbuster production.
Although he has led three Verdi works at the Met, conductor Paolo Carignani hasn’t achieved an especially notable local profile, so it was a pleasure to hear the sounds he drew from the orchestra, especially the lush strings, pungent woodwinds, and percussion strokes in the many authentic Chinese melodies Puccini wove into his boundlessly romantic score. The work, unfinished at the composer’s death in 1924, suits the Met’s forces perfectly, showcasing the superb chorus, here augmented by extras, and the Children’s Chorus. Puccini’s orchestration calls for a crowded pit ensemble, offstage bands and then some, with organ, bass xylophone, saxophones, celesta, and specially outfitted harps. However, the Met’s solution to the problematic ending, with Toscanini’s cuts to Alfano’s completion based on Puccini’s sketches, is a quick and hasty happy wrap-up that never quite satisfies.
Goerke brought her customary command and presence to the role of Princess Turandot, frozen in the icy blue cage of her towering headdress. An iconic moon goddess avenging an ancient wrong by beheading would-be suitors unable to answer her riddles, Turandot doesn’t sing until mid-way through the opera and then has to manage a killer aria that works its way quickly into a high tessitura, where it stays for pages. Patches of below-pitch singing signaled Goerke’s struggle at the outset of “In questa reggia,” but her phrasing and musicality were out in force, and the sound began to exhibit its customary gleam and amplitude. Although she has had many successful outings in Strauss and Wagner recently, one can’t help feel that this role, with its controlled, severe declamation, and restricted, ritualistic physical movement, cramps Goerke’s natural expressivity and fails to showcase the strength and colorings of her upper middle voice.
Calàf is the foreign prince who attempts the riddles after falling in love with Turandot at first sight (or first smell, to be exact, as he describes a hypnotic fragrance emanating from her presence). Marcelo Álvarez was more than acceptable in the role, but his flailing, awkward acting style seemed to be aiming for a naturalism completely at odds with the story and the production. Although his third act “Nessun dorma” hit the mark, Alvarez’s choppy singing detracts from what is still a beautiful sound, and he fudged the high C at the end of the riddle scene.
Abkhazian-Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava used her dark and voluptuous soprano to touching effect as the slave girl Liù, whose sacrifice shows Turandot the power of love. Along with power in ensembles, Gerzmava managed the floaty, shimmery high notes required of the role, and she commanded the stage in her final moments. Veteran bass James Morris represents luxury casting in the role of Timur, the deposed King of Tartary and Calàf’s blind father. This is one of those sympathetic, morally upright characters Morris handles so well (remember last season’s compelling Hans Sachs?), and he projected a palpable humanity and fully-rounded persona that carried easily over the footlights. Rested and vocally fresh, Morris limned each phrase with the warmth and clarity that characterize his sound.
The palace bureaucrats Ping, Pang, and Pong offer comic relief, and their scene at the beginning of Act Two provides 15 minutes of either tedium or delightful musical wit, depending on the casting and staging. Here the exemplary baritone Dwayne Croft and tenors Tony Stevenson and Eduardo Valdes sang with finesse. Although the staging of their scene could use a re-tooling, they projected both formality and humanity as they reminisced about old China and Turandot’s former suitors, longing for their simple lives and gardens back home in the countryside.
The Emperor Altoum, who appears at the top of Zeffirelli’s huge staircase and must deliver his pronouncements in an other-worldly voice, is a specialty role which, incidentally, provided the Met debut of 84-year-old Lieder singer Hugues Cuénod in 1987. Here, Mark Schowalter stepped in at the last minute, for Ronald Naldi, suggesting dignity and age with clear, clipped sound and appropriately stiff enunciation. Patrick Carfizzi’s voice rang out in the role of the Mandarin.
Zeffirelli’s crowd scenes are legendary. Turandot’s are filled with acrobats, beggars, processions, children, brawling thugs, twirling banners, and sword-wielding guards, from the first act’s night scene outside the Imperial Palace — where crowds witness the rise of the moon as well as the execution of one unlucky suitor — to the sparkly gold and Lucite throne room itself, a blockbuster reveal beloved by Met audiences. Ping, Pang, and Pong are housed in red, blue, and green pavilions. Costumes by Anna Anni and Dada Saligeri were richly colored and sumptuous, highlighting Turandot in frosty blue and her suitor Calàf in blues and grays.
Turandot remains in the Met repertoire through Jan. 30. Lise Lindstrom, Jennifer Wilson, and Nina Stemme alternate in the title role; Leah Crocetto and Anita Hartig sing Liù; and Yusif Eyvazov and Marco Berti appear as Calàf.
Judith Malafronte is a lecturer in Music at Yale University, and she writes for Opera News, EMAg, and other print and online outlets, while continuing a career as mezzo-soprano, continuo player, and vocal coach in the New York City area.