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. 


Review: La bohème at Sydney Opera House

Saturday, January 2 2016
Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia

Presented by Opera Australia
Carlo Montanaro, conductor
Gale Edwards, director

Natalie Aroyan, Mimì
Yosep Kang, Rodolfo
Lorina Gore, Musetta
Andrew Jones, Marcello
Richard Anderson, Colline

Puccini, La bohème (1896)

Happy New Year from Sydney!

Sometimes you go to work on Monday expecting it to just be another Monday.  In fact, you always do, even this past Monday, when you knew full well that it wouldn’t be.  Still, how things unfold surprises you, and suddenly you find yourself with some time off.  Moreover, the Italy trip that you had been planning for the holidays suddenly seems inadequate, like you need something further out of your comfort zone.  So one thing leads to another and ten days later you are in the other hemisphere.

To the extent that I had planned for this trip, I had meant to only admire the Sydney Opera House from afar. But when the opportunity presents itself to see an opera in the world’s most famous opera house, how can one not go for it? So standing room only ticket to La bohème it is.
I’m not generally a fan or connoisseur of operas, and La bohème is the famous Puccini work that I’m least familiar with, despite all the modern knockoffs that it inspired from Moulin Rouge to Rent. Actually I see a lot of Les Mis, too, with Mimi busting out arias from her death bed. It’s a story as old as time, after all, that the poor fall in love and die. I think most people prefer operas to instrumental music because the story, staging, and acting all make the music less boring, but for me operas take the interpretation out and forces too much suspension of belief. Take the second act, for instance–are we to believe that a man would tell a woman that he loves her merely minutes after meeting her? Moreover, we are told over and over how angelic Mimi is, but all we hear is her whining, which not only takes away from the impact of her death, but it diminishes our sympathy for Rodolfo.

My lukewarm feelings about the source material and art form aside, I thought the production was excellent. The orchestra was more than competent, and Rodolfo, on man, his voice was so luxurious that it’s believable one can fall in love with it on the spot. I had never heard a voice like that, so much that whenever he sang, he took my mind off my aching feet. Sounds corny, but it’s true. The supporting cast was fantastic as well, especially Marcello and Musetta, whose overstated performances punctuated the production perfectly. Mimi was the lone weak link, though her voice did come alive for her swan song in the final act.

By the somber finale, Puccini had gone through his recycling of the Turandot score (or is it the other way around?), and Rodolfo’s soulful voice had elevated the concert to my most unforgettable opera experience ever. Having stood for hours next to opera-goers sitting comfortably in seats costing hundreds of dollars, I could barely drag my tired soles back to the hostel. Kind of fitting, considering the subject of La bohème.