Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Paolo Carignani
Producer/Director: Franco Zeffirelli
Turandot: Nina Stemme
Calaf: Marco Berti
Liu: Leah Crocetto
Timur: Alexander Tsymbalyuk
I had never really cared enough about Turandot to give it another go after attending a particularly underwhelming production of it in Washington, DC years ago, but once in a while I had reminded myself that according to reliable sources the Met's famously over-the-top production cooked up by (who else?) Franco Zeffirelli was by itself worth the price of admission, So I had figured that I would wait for the right opportunity to maybe consider checking that one out.
Turns out that the right opportunity came last week after my friend Angie mentioned again that she had never been to an opera and would love to try. As I carefully perused the Met's Website, Turandot quickly stood out for having the perfect combination of attractive melodies, exotic setting, simple story, reasonable length and, last but not least, one show-stopping aria that everybody needs to hear live at least once in their lives. Moreover, for me that would also be a nice return to comfortable tradition after the visceral grittiness of The Prototype Festival's Dog Days.
I had never heard anyone in the current cast, but I will hear highly regarded Nina Stemme in Elektra later this season so an early introduction would not hurt. And there was of course always the possibility of discovering a hidden gem. So it was with genuine excitement that last Monday night, on a finally seasonally cold Martin Luther King Day, Angie and I took our seats dead center in the penultimate row of the Family Circle – The price to pay for procrastinating – in a very full opera house.
Giacomo Puccini's last and most ambitious opera, Turandot unfolds on a grand scale and then veers towards unevenness towards the end (Can't blame the composer though, since the poor guy died before he had a chance to finish it). Featuring an unattainably beautiful princess, a hopelessly smitten suitor, a thoroughly kind-hearted slave, an opulent China of legend, and three famously unsolvable riddles, the opera has never quite reached the admittedly hard to match popularity of La Bohème, Tosca or Butterfly, but it has been a reliable crowd pleaser in major opera houses around the world for decades.
Unsurprisingly Turandot depends in no small part on the soprano in charge of the unforgivingly challenging title role, the icy princess who will eventually come around 180 degrees after one mightily revelatory kiss (Yes, apparently that's sometimes all it takes.) And we had that rare bird on Monday night in Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, who winningly expressed not only the expected uncompromising harshness, but also the overwhelming human emotions that eventually brought the opera to a happy – if rather yawn-inducing – end. Her assured singing was consistently strong and delicately nuanced, and I am now very much looking forward to hearing her tackle Elektra.
But no matter how splendidly Nina Stemme sang, the star of the evening turned out to be promising American newcomer Leah Crocetto, whose beautiful soprano voice and charismatic stage presence gave sizzling life to self-sacrificing Liu. Of course it did not hurt that she was the only fully fleshed-out and spontaneously endearing character of the entire opera, but even beside that given advantage, she gorgeously conveyed heart-breaking vulnerability and unbreakable strength. Definitely a star-in-the-making.
If the ladies were memorable, Italian tenor Marco Berti did not make a strong impression as Calaf, the love-struck stranger who dared to enter the contest to win the impregnable princess, and incidentally the vast empire of China. Although he clearly could and in fact did get the job done, his lack of emotional range quickly became frustrating, and I still have to hear “Nessun dorma” the way it is supposed to be heard.
The chorus, on the other hand, distinguished itself one more time with total control of the numerous and daunting chorus numbers.
If the singing was uneven, the production was indisputably Zeffirelli at his most dazzlingly extravagant with hordes of people decked-out in sumptuous costumes, explosions of eye-popping colors everywhere and various activities going on in every corner, from an (offstage) beheading and a royal decree to dance numbers and commedia dell'arte routines. That was definitely as visually spectacular an opera as they come. However, one wished that the opera house’s entire configuration had been taken into account during the conception as the emperor, who was at some point allegedly standing at the top of the stage, was not visible to most of the audience in the Family Circle, and probably more in the house.
The music was pure Puccini, with luscious melodies and soaring arias, but it also interestingly included some unusual instruments such as alto saxophones and a celesta. This allowed the composer to create a wider range of sounds, to which were added complex arrangements for the chorus and a few Chinese folk themes. Altogether, this was a grand musical adventure, and Paolo Carignani made sure that the reliably fabulous orchestra delivered a glowing performance of the magnificent score. So despite a couple of misgivings, this was deemed a successful night at the opera, and we both shall return.