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The Uses of Enchantment

New York
Metropolitan Opera
10/28/2009 -  & October 31, November 3, 7, 10, 14*, 18, 21, 2009
Giacomo Puccini: Turandot
Lise Lindstrom (Turandot), Marina Poplavskaya (Liù), Marcello Giordani (Calàf), Samuel Ramey (Timur), Joshua Hopkins (Ping), Tony Stevenson (Pang), Eduardo Valdes (Pong), Charles Anthony (Emperor), Keith Miller (Mandarin)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (Conductor)
Franco Zeffirelli (Production and Set Designer), Anna Anni, Dada Saligeri (Costume Designer), Gil Wechsler (Lighting Designer), David Kneuss (Stage Director)

L. Lindstrom (© Marty Sohl)

It was love at first sight for Calàf, the prince who falls in love with the beautiful yet imperious and vengeful princess Turandot and vows to win her heart. But it was also love at first sight for the Metropolitan Opera audience when they saw – and especially heard – the beautiful and talented soprano, Lise Lindstrom, in her unscheduled Met debut on opening night. Maria Guleghina was unwell, and Ms. Lindstrom, with scant notice, took her place. I attended a subsequent performance but the reaction seemed to have been much the same. Lindstrom was magnificent vocally and dramatically. And the audience was unstinting in its appreciation.

In the first scene, the Mandarin -- sung by the superb bass, Keith Miller, with sonorous tone and dramatic flair -- reads a proclamation which (conveniently) summarizes the situation in which we find ourselves.

Princess Turandot, as revenge for the wrongs done to her ancestor by a stranger, wreaks vengeance on the many men who fall in love with her, by having them put to death if they cannot answer her three riddles. As the opera opens, the latest of these failed romantics, the Prince of Persia, is being led to his execution. Despite obviously long odds and the visible grisly precedent (the Prince’s head on a stick), Calàf vows to undergo the trials required to win Turandot’s love. In the huge crowd, Calàf finds his father, Timur, and the servant girl, Liù, who is taking care of the old man. In the first act, Turandot is merely a silent and vengeful, yet somehow dreamlike, presence. It is not until the second act that she actually sings.

When, much to Turandot’s surprise and consternation, Calàf answers her riddles correctly, he offers to defer their marriage and issues his own challenge. If she can learn his name, he will willingly die. If not, she will be his bride. Turandot, clearly, not the marrying kind, sets out to learn the name at any cost. And that cost involves threats against and torture of Calàf’s father Timur and his companion. Liù, saying that she alone knows his name, commits suicide to save Calàf. Turandot realizes what true love is, and she and her prince are united at the end of the opera.

Dramatically and musically, Puccini borrowed from many sources. The fairy tale is clearly one of them. The scenario is familiar; think for a moment of Tamino and his less highly-motivated companion, Papageno, undergoing the trials of fire, air, earth and water in Die Zauberflöte. Puccini came to his fairy tale through the work of the eighteenth century Venetian playwright, Carlo Gozzi. He famously quarreled with his contemporary, Carlo Goldoni, whose plays about ordinary people achieved wide popularity. Gozzi produced pamphlets attacking Goldoni’s common characters and defended his own writing of fables. He drew upon the old commedia dell’arte characters which appear in Puccini’s opera in the form of the three masks (or ministers).

Puccini and his librettists use these characters, Ping, Pang, and Pong, to achieve a variety of ends. They fill us in on the atmosphere of fear and terror in the court because of Turandot’s propensity for murderous retribution for the wrongs done against her sex. They also supply a cynical, world-weary, and highly amusing perspective against which to view Calàf’s romantic idealism. Later in the opera, they turn from protective and helpful to nasty and vengeful. In all of these incarnations, the three singers, Joshua Hopkins, Tony Stevenson, and Eduardo Valdes, excelled vocally and dramatically. They also moved beautifully in their exaggerated and highly stylized way.

Puccini was greatly influenced by the music of China with respect to his harmonies, his instrumentation, his use of the pentatonic scale, and the quotations from actual folk songs which are sprinkled throughout the opera. Liù’s beautiful and moving aria in act one (“Signore ascolta”) is based on one such song. Marina Poplavskaya, as Liù, gave a splendid performance, singing with a lovely mellow tone and beautiful floating pianissimos. Hers was an almost ethereal presence and, as such, it was just the right portrayal of such a lovable and vulnerable character.

Samuel Ramey as Timur portrayed his character with great dignity and pathos but his pronounced wobble, evident for some time now, has gotten worse. Charles Anthony, another Met veteran, made a convincing Emperor.

Marcello Giordani gave an uneven performance as Calàf. He did hit some convincing high notes with a fine ringing tone, but he was weak in the middle and especially the lower end of his range. In the showpiece aria, “Nessun dorma”, he nailed the top notes. He is a wooden actor, however, very much a stand and deliver singer.

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus was unfailingly superb, and they used all of their many talents giving voice to an extraordinary range of moods. They were equally convincing as the vengeful mob awaiting the execution of yet one more luckless would-be lover and as the sweet voiced celebrants of a song to the moon. Moreover, unlike the chorus in La Bohème, for example, the chorus in Turandot functions as an actual character, inciting the action and even helping to determine it.

The evening belonged to Lise Lindstrom. She was every inch a fairy tale princess. She had a luminous presence and moved with dignity and grace. Her transformation from vengeful harridan to a woman in love was a convincing one. She sang “In questa reggia” with a crystalline tone, power to spare, a lovely legato line, and spot-on intonation. She truly inhabited her character.

The Met Orchestra, under conductor Andris Nelsons, illuminated Puccini’s varied musical textures, whether thick or thin. I was particularly impressed with the level of detail and beauty they revealed in the score.

This production is perhaps Zeffirelli’s most spectacular spectacle. Few current productions can rival it for the sheer number of people on stage, the complexity and magnificence of the scenic effects, dragons and all, and the scene changes that seem to occur by magical means. Even now, in its twenty-second year, this production still elicits gasps of amazement and fervent applause. The most stunning tableau of the evening was surely the lavish gold throne room in the second scene of act two. The profuse detail provided a fabulous setting and simultaneously threatened to upstage this fairy tale opera.

Turandot returns to the Met in January.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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