The audience applauded the scenery in Act two, Turandot’s golden palace emerging as if by magic from the darkness: wonderful coup de theatre, a moment still effective in this now venerable production.
Zeffirelli’s treatment is his usual: opera aiming to compete with film for possibilities of spectacle, this Turandot aiming to feast the eye at least, as Puccini tickles the ear (for me, Turandot will never nourish the soul as his Boheme might). The whole thing feels late 1960s epic film: never a dull visual, literalist in intent, overawing. The maximalist treatment (acrobats tumbling, Fu Manchu moustaches, a Chinese dragon puppet, scimitars and slanted eye makeup, costumes of ostentatious magnificence) speaks of a horror vacui: cram it in and hope the music helps, and the singing too.
Puccini’s extended dalliance with the pentatonic and musical signifiers of the oriental mean for me that Turandot possesses less of a thrill than his other output, yet Paolo Carignani and the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera gave a sympathetic account of the score. Force of statement in the loudest moments, convincing warmth for lyrical moments: a job well done.
As Calaf, Marcello Alvarez was solid in technique and voice, this robustness a pleasure throughout and indeed he seems less solid in girth than he has been and perhaps as a result sounding better than I have heard him for a while. Nessun Dorma came at first rather clipped in enunciation, purposefully so I think, and the climax didn’t quite sound as if, as with his idol Pavarotti he had found another gear for the final notes, but it was a more than serviceable rendition. There was much fist clenching, sawing of the air, Alvarez’s register of acting technique not the deepest, but again, it did the job well.
Less lovely for me was Christine Goerke who seemed to evidence a bit of tension in the voice: notes which could have blossomed a little more refrained from opening to their fullest extent – whether by choice or not, certainly noticeable. In chorus and forte moments, squillo powered through the forces combined, but from voice alone I wanted more richness. Perhaps other performances might find that. Notable though was her lower range, conveying torment and anguish effectively. As a pairing they acted well, Goerke convincingly tormented, Alvarez suitably attempting the heroic.
James Morris was similarly perhaps not at his vocal best by my reckoning, which may merely be the effects of a long career. Stature, gravitas, presence he possesses, but his voice did not quite reflect it that night. Again, maybe an off-night.
Hibla Gerzmava then, tragic Liu: voice of the night. A richness of bloom, depth of tone, emotion carrying and coming through in the singing: a pleasure to hear. I hope other roles develop her considerable capabilities and I hope to see her in other roles soon.
An entertaining night, a bit of a guilty pleasure though. One wonders just how long the production will be revived: it’s unabashed Orientalism sits a little uncomfortably nowadays, and compared with, for example, Bieito’s attempt at the same opera, whose production speaks of our modern age, in all its squalor, of its oppressions and injustices large and small, this staging seems outdated, fantasy entertainment. For many at the Met, no problem – and for some, who voted with their feet by leaving (mostly in the final act) no problem (save perhaps a bit of boredom?) but for those who want opera to remain relevant and not just as a production to fill coffers, I’ll take the Bieito every time.