Puccini: Turandot

The Metropolitan Opera

Live from the Met in cinemas, 16 November 2009 3 stars

Marty SohlIn the end, it was neither love nor the flames of passion that defrosted the Ice Princess, Turandot – it was Franco Zeffirelli's hot, opulent sets and glorious pageantry.

Not that anyone's complaining, mind you. The Met's over-the-top production, which is rumored to have cost $1.5 million when this extravaganza first opened in 1987, must be seen to be believed. And if seeing is believing, those watching the live HD simulcast Nov. 7 had a pronounced advantage over their counterparts at Lincoln Center, journeying along with the cameras through every nook and cranny of Zeffirelli's massive, imposing scenic design.

Of course, Puccini's vision of ancient Peking is more than just palaces, pavilions and imposing staircases. Stage Director David Kneuss must have had a magic wand to coordinate in such orderly fashion the heavy traffic of the more than 200 chorus members and supernumeraries (imperial guards, priests, mandarins and townspeople) during the opening scene, from their bloody cry for execution ('Muoia! Noi vogliamo il carnefice') to the macabre anticipation of the Prince of Persia's slaughter as they watch the executioner sharpen his sword ('Arrota! Che la lama guizzi'). Give credit also to Chiang Ching, whose 'choreography' of the crowd scenes (mostly stylized movement, actually) and synchronized waving of flags and bandanas provided a stunning complement to the considerable pomp and pageantry of Zeffirelli's sets.

When the smoke cleared, and the initial high from the overwhelming staging and scenery began to wane, listeners began to realize that this is, after all, opera – with acting and singing. Removed from the sizeable distractions of the production, the singing was quite good. But even here, the two principal roles were overshadowed by the lesser role of the slave girl, Liù, sung magnificently by Russian-born soprano, Marina Poplavskaya (pictured, bottom).

It's always a joy to watch singers who can also act, and the close-up camera work panning Poplavskaya's face during her poignant first-act refrain, 'Signore, ascolta', only reinforced the obvious: Poplavskaya is not only a gifted lyric soprano, but also a convincing actress.

Singing in tender, softly shaped phrases, Poplavskaya makes a compelling case for Calàf to stop the madness and abandon his plan to risk his neck for the Princess, and her manner of delivery is faithfully mirrored in her eyes, mouth, and brows (the camera doesn't lie!). When Liù tells Turandot in Act III that the Princess, too, will experience the meaning of love ('Tu che di gel sei cinta'), I was convinced and quite moved.

As Calàf, Marcello Giordani produced some of the most pleasant – but also some of the most frustrating – singing of the afternoon. Giordani's vocal timbre is somewhat of an amalgam combining the lightness of a lyric tenor with the more powerful shades of a dramatic (helden) tenor. But while he demonstrated power to spare in the high notes (he added in an unwritten high C during the celebrated 'riddles scene' with Guleghina), Giordani oftentimes loses control of pitch, which tends to sail sharp when he belts out the top tones (as much as a half-step sharp, such as at the end of Act I). Giordani's signature third-act aria, 'Nessun dorma', while strong in voice, was also sharp in the high notes, and his phrasings were choppy – as if saving himself for the penultimate note, a high B (which he abandoned much sooner than did the orchestra).

As an actor, Giordani's stage presence is stiff and forced, and when he's not singing he appears detached from the dramatic action. When Liù importunes him to abandon his quest for the hand of Turandot ('Signore, ascolta'), Giordani can do little more than stand before her like a statue.

Credit: Marty SohlReturning to the stage after canceling several earlier performances due to illness, Maria Guleghina exuded a commanding (if not intimidating) presence as the misanthropic Ice Princess, Turandot. In a clever touch of staging smarts, Turandot's fearsome image is projected through an open window of the Palace several times during the first-act, producing a frightful effect reminiscent of the ominous stare of Big Brother in Orwell's 1984.

From the low register to her high Gs, Guleghina's dramatic soprano is exquisite – a rich and thick vocal timbre that mirrors the larger-than-life character she portrays. Still, the lingering effects of her recent sinus infection were evident several times during the performance, such as in her delivery of the three riddles in Act II where she struggled to maintain pitch during the sustained high notes, and especially during the relentless high-register passages in Act III, which were consistently flat.

Guleghina's acting throughout the performance was quite good, and while I would have preferred that she exaggerate her character's venomous hatred of men when challenging her would-be lover (In questa reggai), hers was a credible, if not memorable, Turandot. When the stoic anti-heroine finally thaws in Act III, Guleghina's transformation from a would-be goddess to vulnerable mortal was believable, and – for a silly fairytale – quite moving.

Veteran bass-baritone Samuel Ramey, who this past April celebrated his 25th-anniversary with the Met, forged a sympathetic character as the proud but downtrodden Timur, exiled King of Tartary and father of Calàf. Ramey's vibrato however continues to widen, which distorted his vocal delivery to the point where, by the third-act, I began to wonder whether Bert Lahr was actually doing the singing.

With the advantage of some irresistible sets and clever staging, the not-so-minor roles of Ping, Pang and Pong (Joshua Hopkins, Tony Stevenson and Eduardo Valdes, respectively) sparkled during the opening scene of Act II, as the colorfully outfitted trio speculated on whether they would be preparing a wedding or a funeral (Poichè il funesto gong).

The colorful costumes, designed by Anna Anni and Dada Saligeri, provided a vibrant complement to the dizzying opulence of Zeffirelli's sets. Especially lovely were the yellow and gold ceremonial robes of the servants and mandarins that mirrored the color of the Imperial Palace during Act II, Scene Two. And let's not forget Turandot's headdress – a pearl-studded, chandelier-shaped contraption that would make a Las Vegas showgirl envious. Lighting Director Gil Wechsler convincingly captured both the look and mood of the ancient Peking's setting sun and rising moon.

The Met Orchestra, under the direction of the young Latvian conductor, Andris Nelsons, was in top form throughout this complex and demanding score, Puccini's last. The third-act of Turandot contains the composer's most brilliant writing for brass, and here the Met's brass section shined – both onstage and off.

Except for a few ensemble problems that occasionally placed them out-of-sync with the orchestra, the Met Chorus sang well throughout the performance, particularly as they chanted the Imperial Hymn, 'Ai tuoi piedi ci prostriamo', at the end of Act II. I would nonetheless be much obliged if the chorus master were to prune those few women choristers whose thick, uncontrollable vibratos detract from an otherwise pleasant listening experience.       

By David Abrams

Photos: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera


Rneee FlemingRelated articles (Renee Fleming's recordings):

Richard Strauss: Arabella DVD (June 2008)
Verdi: La traviata DVD (December 2007)
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin DVD
(February 2008)
Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs (September 2008)


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