Turandot in a house of trust
Franco Zeffirelli directs Turandot in New York (****)
Author : Johan Uytterschaut
It sometimes happens, though not often, that I suddenly discover a new hearing incidence in an otherwise well known piece of music, thus yielding tremendous surprises. That was the case on witnessing Puccini’s Turandot in the New York Met.
Let me explain. The Met is presenting a new series of performances in Franco Zeffirelli’s iconic production. I had seen that production a few times before (in different casts, of course), and I was, time and again, fascinated by its baroque virtuosity. Zeffirelli chose to do the full Monty, well knowing that the Met’s staging capacities are second to none. It explains why the changing of sets between the first and second act takes no less than 45 minutes. But there’s more. The staging of human forces tends to be of an unseen stir and bustle, and that has its reasons. The score of Puccini’s swan song verges, certainly in the first act, towards perfection: there is the dramatic pacing, but also the harmonic verve ánd the orchestral invention, which together make up for a brilliant whole, marvellously balanced, compellingly dynamic. That is what Zeffirelli’s staging is mirroring. For some reason or other that specific reflection struck me in the show I witnessed, and that’s how I came out at the revelation I was talking about earlier on: in this case, Puccini’s scoring is simply unique. Depending on the needs, it is either kaleidoscopically bustling (where in e.g. Butterfly it used to impress with a minimalistic slant) or passionately and lyrically elegant. It is true Igor Stravinsky had been a source of inspiration, but Puccini masterly warps that influence in the woof of his own idiom (some phrasing is to be found as early as La Bohème). In any case, this specific scoring thunders on for quite some time in history, landing in Bernard Herrmann’s music for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
This being said, Zeffirelli’s production is far from worn down. The quality of the costumes, if nothing else, justifies bringing it on. Of course, all that is futile without a proper vocal cast, which in this instance was very good in some cases, splendid in others. Finding the best singers for Turandot is always a challenge. The parts of Turandot and Kalaf are notably demanding, both in resilience against the orchestra and in homogeneity in a wide range. You could call them the Italian counterparts of Richard Wagner’s ideal voices. Anna Netrebko was originally planned to sing the title role, but for well known reasons she has been replaced by Ukrainian Ljudmilla Monastyrska. She went through a fine career build-up toward this Stimmfach, and she clearly is up to the part. Het vocal technique shows a considerable intelligence: she never lets herself be seduced into display of vocal power, enabling her to ride a blameless track. There may be other soprano’s, delivering a more colourful Turandot, but let us not forget this is a very static role, a character as cold as ice, not showing any emotional depth until the very end (and even then only a tiny bit). I gladly therefore forgive Monastyrska’s lack of blazing passion.
Tenor Yonghoon Lee has the fitting vocal material for singing Kalaf (and other spinto parts): quite dark, very dense, and with the necessary stamina. The conducting of the voice however, ánd his visual radiance verge towards being somewhat cramped, resulting in a one-dimensional performance. On the one hand, that makes him Turandots perfect counterpart; on the other, he barely exceeds the cardboard character enclosed in the story. However, his aria in the third act (Nessun dorma), displaying a radiant and most steady top note, didn’t fail to impress the audience.
Ovations also for the second-plan parts of Liù and Timur. I didn’t know the Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho. What a discovery! Next to the field guns of the leading parts, her voice is smaller, but as Goethe used to say: In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister. The part of Liù may well be the most demanding one in this opera. There is precious little chance of showing off, and it has to happen then. Not with a stunner of an aria, but with a most delicately developed poetic moment of true emotional discharge (Signore, ascolta in the first act), standing alone amongst the otherwise brutal violence of collective hysteria and bloodthirst. Nothing but refinement, control and real feelings in Jaho’s performance, which demonstrated true, adult artistry. Moving ánd impressive.
And then there’s éminence grise Ferruccio Furlanetto. His voice is, at 73, as present as in his earlier renditions of Leporello, Don Alfonso, Mefistofele, Zaccaria, and so on; mealy, virile, stable… It results in a most enjoyable Timur, this part being all to often sung by a deserving end-of-career.
The rest of the cast do what they‘re supposed to do. No real weak spots, all seasoned and reliable singers, feeling good in this production. Marco Armiliato is aptly leading the whole machinery. The whole evening stands as a rock, with a superb chorus (anything less wouldn’t do) and a first class orchestra, as is the Met’s standard.
The Metropolitan is and remains a professionally managed house of trust.