Review: Turandot, The Metropolitan Opera

Friday, January 15 2016
Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

Metropolitan Opera
Paolo Carignani, conductor

Nina Stemme, Turandot
Anita Hartig, Liù
Marco Berti, Calàf
Alexander Tsymbalyuk, Timur

Puccini, Turandot (1924, completed by F. Alfano in 1926)

What a special month this is turning out to be, what with two Puccini operas in two different hemispheres.  And I maintain, I don’t even like opera!  For starters, they are so much more expensive than instrumental concerts, and once again I could only afford a standing room ticket.  In this particular case, however, I can actually see why a ticket costs so much.  The Met’s production of Turandot is such a visual spectacle, with lavish set designs and stunning costumes–the complete opposite of La bohème–that the music itself is almost secondary.

Before attending this performance, I had thought that Turandot was the Puccini opera I was most familiar with.  But really all that means is that I had heard “Nessun dorma” like a hundred times from watching figure skating at every winter Olympics.  I had no idea that at least 2/3 of the opera is set to Chinese folk songs, most prominently “Jasmine Flower”.  The melody is seamlessly integrated into the rest of the score, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the other way around.  I wonder if Puccini was aware of the song’s original Chinese lyrics, which, having grown up in China during the last years of an era when art and culture still exuded socialist ideology, I had always taken to be a patriotic verse about the floral beauty of the motherland.  But of course the song has been around since the 18th century, and now that I re-read the lyrics, it is so appropriate for the story of Turandot (even if different libretto was used), the beautiful but aloof princess ultimately won over by love.

Between the familiar score and the elaborate visual display, it’s as if I was watching a Chinese variety show, which considering the setting of Turandot, may even be intentional.  If I have one complaint about the production, it’s that ironically the Met Orchestra was a bit too powerful for the singers.  As a standalone body of musicians, some publications would rank the Met Orchestra as among the top 20 orchestras in the world, and its sheer size and volume overwhelmed the voices of Ms. Stemme and Mr. Tsymbalyuk at times.  Mr. Berti’s Calàf was more than adequate, especially in his rendition of the “Nessun dorma”, though in the context of the opera the aria sounds much less grandiose than its stand-alone versions, and the audience’s applause for the singer awkwardly cut into the orchestra’s soaring climax (reason #153 why opera is less accessible to me as an art form).  Finally, Ms. Hartig’s Liù was the true breakout star of the performance as she breathed freshness into the age-old stereotype of the woman who self-sacrifices in the name of unrequited love.  Come to think of it, maybe *this* is the Puccini opera that had most inspired Les Mis. 
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