Occasionally music history has strange coincidences where a famous composer is unable to finish his final work. This is particularly strange when the final work has something to do with death.
Consider Mozart who died writing a requiem. Likewise, Giacomo Puccini succumbed to lung cancer before completing “Turandot.” The last piece he wrote was the funeral march for the slave girl Liù. When the opera had its premiere in 1924, under Arturo Toscanini’s baton, he turned to the audience after Liù’s funeral march and uttered the now immortal words, “and here the Maestro put down his pen.”
The completed work would have its premiere in 1926 with additional music by Franco Alfano, supposedly based on sketches Puccini left behind. When taken as a whole the opera is not only a fitting end to a storied career but also one of the final Italian operas that modern theaters can count on to consistently draw big receipts at the box office. Some scholars see “Turandot” as marking the end of what is known as the old operatic canon – the culmination of a process of musical and dramatic refinement that began with Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” in 1786.
Compositionally, “Turandot” displays everything that makes Puccini a great opera composer. The work has show-stopping arias and music that heightens the drama of the story. Lastly, the work also contains several leitmotifs. In this regard “Turandot’s” score is not Puccini’s most Wagnerian, that distinction is more suited for “La Fanciulla del West” in 1910. However, “Fanciullla” is more sprawling and not as focused as Turandot.
High Spectacle, As Always
Additionally, “Turandot” is an opera that does not skimp on spectacle. The massive crowd scenes and depictions of mythical Chinese palaces are a director’s dream. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the Met’s Franco Zeffirelli production from 1988, which is now in the midst of a revival, has proven to be a crowd favorite. The beauty of the current Met production is that it is high on spectacle but also cost-effective. The Met has been strapped for cash in recent seasons. This year when the season opens, the company said it would offer buyouts to 21 administrators. In contrast to many of Peter Gelb’s expensive new productions, like the recent “Prince Igor” from 2014, which featured a very costly field of silk flowers, “Turandot’s” production consists of a single set, which is seen in different configurations in each act. The scene changes based on how much of the set is illuminated or covered up.
Diversity of Range
In any performance of “Turandot,” a solid orchestra and chorus are of utmost importance. Some might even say the chorus functions as its own character, a mass of Chinese peasants who comment or react to the events of the plot. Here the chorus, under the direction of Chorus Master Donald Palumbo, performed splendidly. Their robust sound helped bring out the richness of Puccini’s score. In the pit, Carlo Rizzi led a varied performance. He highlighted Puccini’s use of percussive rhythm and dynamics; this was especially the case during the chorus’ savaged calls for the execution of the Prince of Persia in Act I. Rizzi also brought out Puccini’s diverse orchestral colors, highlighting the brass in particular.
James Morris, in the role of Timur, celebrated his 1000th Met performance (October 17, 2017). Peter Gelb presented him with an award shortly after the end of the first Act. Morris’ performance as a deposed emperor who was father to Prince Calaf was a filling tribute to mark such an occasion. He sang elegantly with beautifully sustained tone. Additionally, he sang a tender farewell to Liu in Act III.
Mixing and Matching
As Liu, the slave girl who makes the ultimate sacrifice for love, Maria Agresta got better as the opera went on. She seemed underpowered in Act I but was still able to end her big aria, “Signore ascolta,” with a breath taking pianissimo. Act III was her time to shine, although on occasion, she seemed to be pushing herself, however slightly, in her upper register.
Oksana Dyka gave an uneven performance as the icy princess who vows never to marry. She demonstrated good attention to text in the riddle scene before losing to Calaf. She was frightening. However, Turandot is an extremely difficult role. She must be a heavy dramatic soprano who can also belt out some incredibly high notes. The trick is not to sound strident while doing so. Unfortunately, Dyka fell into this trap.
Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko has sung most of opera’s heavy hitting tenor roles at the Met recently. Past seasons have seen him in roles, such as the lead in Verdi’s “Otello” and Pollione in “Norma.” Now he can add Calaf to his list. Like Turandot, Calaf is an extremely difficult part. His tessitura is demanding and what’s more, he sings more than anyone else in the opera. Additionally, tenors who sing Calaf need to remain fresh all evening, as it isn’t until Act three, the tenors get a chance to sing “Nessun dorma” and the final duet—these are the pieces this role is known for. Fortunately, Antonenko gave a sturdy rendition of “Nessun dorma” and his performance grew better as the night went on. In the lower sections of Act III, he definitely sounded like a true heroic tenor. Unfortunately, like the rest of the cast, he was strident in his upper register.
Of the smaller roles in the cast, Ping, Pang, and Pong, played by Alexey Lavrov, Tony Stevenson, and Eduardo Valdes respectively, exhibited a great vocal blend. As the Mandarin, an imperial herald, Jeongcheol Cha demonstrated his profound bass-baritone.
The Met has had a great opening to the season, its productions of “Norma,” “Die Zauberflöte,” and “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” have been well-received. Despite the unevenness of this year’s “Turandot,” the opera is a perennial favorite on the strength of Puccini’s music, and here at least the music still shone through.