Met in HD: Lavish Zeffirelli ‘Turandot’ to reprise Feb. 3

While some claim Zefirelli’s grand sets distract from the opera, they also serve to put the “grand” back into “grand opera.” Great singing doesn’t hurt, either.

A scene from Puccini's Turandot. (Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.)

WASHINGTON, February 2, 2016 – Having launched the 2016 stanza of its “Met in HD” live movie theater simulcasts in early January with a beautiful and definitive production of Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers,” the New York Metropolitan Opera outdid itself this weekend past with a visually stunning HD performance of Puccini’s “Turandot.” The production resurrected Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli’s vintage (1980s) but still stunning sets for the occasion.

The result: spectacular eye-candy for the theatrical masses. An added plus: the singing was pretty good, too.

Veteran opera fans already know that “Turandot” (1926) marked the grand finale of Puccini’s storied career. The composer died just before he could put the finishing touches on his final masterwork. Its closing moments were wrapped up rather prosaically and conservatively by others who, after fighting about it as theater people often do, chose to conclude the opera with a full choral reprise of the work’s famous tenor aria, “Nessum dorma.”

That said, this elaborate, longish, and occasionally unpleasant crowning achievement by Puccini—perhaps the most popular opera composer ever, aside from Puccini and Mozart—was still a marvelous way for him to top off his storied career, although plot wise, “Turandot” veers a bit from the composer’s generally verismo approach to the genre.

“Turandot,” sets to music the twisted tale of the opera’s eponymous, mythical Chinese princess, a distant figure who, as we eventually learn, may be secretly starved for love. That said, she’s also deeply afraid of it, fearing a loss of autonomy if she ever marries. Worse, she hides behind the unfortunate end of her honored ancestor, Princess Lou-Ling who was savagely abused and murdered by an evil prince.

As a result, like some type of early gender feminist, she exorcises her inner demons by decapitating every suitor who attempts to win her hand when he’s unable to solve a trio of challenging riddles she proposes to each one.

Even though Turandot (soprano Nina Stemme) is a rather nasty piece of work, she catches the passionate eye of the opera’s hero, Prince Calàf (tenor Marco Berti) falls hopelessly in love with her at first sight, and demands to be the next prince to take up her riddle challenge. Both his long-lost father, the exiled former King of Tartary, Timur (bass-baritone Alexander Tsymbalyuk) and his faithful servant Liù (soprano Anita Hartig) try to dissuade the prince from his hopeless task. But it’s no use, as Calàf is determined to proceed—and succeed. He does, too, although not without gruesome and tragic consequences.

Zeffirelli opera productions over the years have been notable for their cinematic grandeur, inspiring an ongoing argument in the musical theater community. In general, the audience loves Zeffirelli’s grand, colorful and sweepingly realistic approach to scenery and direction. On the other hand, many critics and dead-serious opera goers regard Zeffirelli’s opera productions as blatantly self-referential and meant to draw attention to the designing and directorial skill sets of Zeffirelli rather than working in service to the composer and his music.

Academically, we tend to agree with the musical purists. That said, though, in a time when opera seems dominated by cynical, post-modern producers and directors who typically favor drab, grey, gloomy sets, costuming and attitude, there’s much to be said for adding the original spectacle back to the genre. Zefirelli delivers, and most operagoers love it, just as long as the singing is also first rate.

In this Met production, for the most part at least, the singing fits the bill.

As Turandot, the imposing Wagnerian soprano Nina Stemme is infinitely well-suited to Puccini’s nearly-Wagnerian score, one that places extreme demands on all its soloists. Ms. Stemme handles the challenge with grace and dramatic skill, which is tough in an opera whose heroine proves literally bloody-minded until the very end.

As her ardent suitor, Calàf, tenor Marco Berti seemed to be having an off day during last Saturday’s simulcast. He demonstrated that he possessed the power and the vocal tools to succeed in the role, and may have done precisely that in previous performances. But during Saturday’s performance, which marked the end of the current production’s run, he seems to have been worn out by the extended effort an opera like this one requires, lacking the fire and the passion you’d expect from a hero who risks death for love.

Nonetheless, he delivered the final act’s famous “Nessum dorma” with considerable conviction, so we can likely chalk off his dramatic distance elsewhere to exhaustion.

Although the role of Timur is a small one, Alexander Tsymbalyuk handled it with great, impressive dignity.

Even better was the deeply affecting performance of that marvelous soprano, Anita Hartig who, in many ways, stole the show as the brave and loyal Liù, bringing an unaccustomed tear to many an eye in the process. Ms. Hartig’s voice is liquid silver, and her ability to immerse herself in her small but key role provided considerable emotional ballast to an opera that otherwise is really an elaborate fairy tale.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t offer a hat tip to Dwayne Croft, Tony Stevenson and Eduardo Valdes for their superb performances in the major minor roles of courtiers Ping, Pong and Pang. Providing advice (as well as some welcome comic relief) to both Calàf and others, they lightened up this occasionally heavy opera, particularly in the final act.

Puccini scored “Turandot” for a massive orchestra, including a variety of percussion and adding in an organ to provide extra ballast. Known for incorporating in original ways the musical styles favored at various times throughout his career, the composer added authentic Chinese touches to this score along with the usual Romantic and occasionally Impressionistic richness for which he is revered.

But in addition, particularly in Act I, he adds dark, intentionally foreboding and dissonant passages appropriate to this opera’s often gloomy early mood, but also reflecting the extended tonality and serialism that came to dominate classical music during and particularly after the First World War.

It takes a fine orchestra to navigate these various musical shoals. But the Met Orchestra under the baton of Paolo Caragnani performed with both passion and precision. Added to the generally fine singing as well as the first rate chorus work, all topped off by Zeffirelli’s spectacular sets, this was a fine way to wrap up the Met’s 2015-2016 edition of this popular opera, not to mention a highly attractive and showy bonus for Puccini fans around the country and around the world who had a chance to see the production.

For those who didn’t, and wish they had, there is hope. As is nearly always the case, the Met also recorded Saturday’s simulcast for rebroadcast to participating movies theaters this week. The date: Wednesday, February 3, 2016. The time: 12:55 p.m. EST. But check your local theater’s schedule just to make sure.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17