Metropolitan Opera 2021-22 Review: Turandot, Cast B
Ermonela Jaho is Transcendent in Revival of Puccini ClassicBy David Salazar
(Credit: Metropolitan Opera / Marty Sohl)
I could commence this review by going into the political implications and problematic circumstances surrounding this production, but another writer has already done an excellent job spotlighting all that.
Instead, I am going to jump into the performance itself, the second in this run of the famed Puccini work and Franco Zeffirelli’s iconic and, judging from the audience outbursts throughout the night, fan-favorite production.
While there was general excitement and a mostly full theater, with one notable audience member screaming “MARCO” every time conductor Marco Armiliato entered the pit, the final result was somewhat of a mixed bag.
Not Quite in Charge
Let’s start with Armiliato himself, a reliable maestro who almost always manages solid performances of the Italian repertory. But things didn’t quite quick off so solidly for him. The entire first Act of the opera was a major letdown and a big part of that had to do with his timing and pacing of the piece. The opening of the opera was forceful and potent, but the repeated FFF chords five measures already hinted at something that would come to characterize this first act – a lethargic, repetitive feeling that didn’t quite build or seem to be headed in any particular direction. Every single chord sounded exactly the same. Until the xylophone appeared six measures later, those 10 repeated chords felt like a suspension of time, but not necessarily of tension. While Puccini doesn’t leave any markings emphasizing a crescendo or diminuendo of any kind during these chords to start the opera, he leaves a marked con forza crescendo during the coda of the first act, another series of repeated rhythms and notes that capitulate in a FFFF on the final note; Armiliato had already pushed the orchestra to its highest point earlier in the phrase and the ensemble had nowhere to go in these final bars, leaving the entire postlude without drive or momentum.
In between these two moments, the tempi felt disconnected from one another, and the conductor struggled to create fluid transitions from one moment to another. One major example of this came during the final ensemble that is launched by the tenor’s “Non piangere Liù.” After the solo, we get an extended sextet that culminates in the entire choral mass jumping in. It’s a transcendent musical moment that builds and builds gradually to its apotheosis. But the sextet was unfortunately sloppy and it felt like Armiliato was doing his best to keep the entire thing together; in the midst of all this, the entrance of the chorus thus felt rather sudden and out of nowhere, its arrival jarring rather than an organic build to one of the most riveting musical climaxes in opera.
Then there was his work with the soloists which was perhaps the most worrisome of all. Armiliato is usually right on target when it comes to accommodating soloists, but on this night, there was a clear disconnect between the stage and pit. The two major solos in Act one, “Signore, ascolta” and “Non piangere, Liù” felt like constant pushes and pulls between conductor and soloist to the detriment of the music, which felt formless. The trio of Ping, Pong, and Pang is called on to sing some complex rhythmic passages that also felt discombobulated in their execution and were a major reason why the end of the first Act never quite worked. Things didn’t get off to a better start in the opening of the ensuing Act with the trio of singers never quite in synch with the conductor until the slower section, “Ho una casa nell’Honan” where the trio and conductor finally seemed to find common ground. Perhaps the most frustrating disconnect came in the ensuing scene during Turandot’s “In questa reggia,” where Armiliato seemed intent on a slower tempo, while soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska clearly wanted to move it along; the two didn’t quite get onto the same page until near the end of the aria.
Things got better in the second half of the Act with Armiliato guiding a tight ship through the riddle scene; the orchestra was particularly brash here but the intensity carried into the choral ending of the act and the overall vocal and orchestral ensemble did its finest playing here. The orchestra’s triumphant march-like introduction (marked Ben sostenuno vibrato e ritmico) to the second scene was particularly interesting from a musical standpoint with Armiliato placing a special emphasis on the low B flat in the bass trombone during the fermata chords, emphasizing the dissonance of the chord and creating a strange tension; when this very phrase returns at the close of the opera to reintroduce the throne room, Armiliato minimized the lower note of the chord, creating a more delicate resonance that emphasized the narrative shift in the opera.
Armiliato was at his best in the final Act of the opera, which is likely why, on the whole, it was the best of the trio from a musical standpoint. The conductor was keyed in on each of the singers’ needs, ready to adjust tempi on the fly. The Act flew by and even Alfano’s maligned ending (I am admittedly not a fan of the final duet onward) actually carried along quite beautifully, with Armiliato able to hone in on some of the softer textures of “O mio fiore mattutino!” The opera’s final moments were full of intensity and energy, bringing the performance to a close on an admitted high point.
Soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska’s performance followed a similar arc. She opted for a very restrained opening to “In questa reggia,” which could definitely have come off effectively if not for the disconnect with Armiliato made them come off as a tentative. Eventually, she managed to find her way with the aria, regardless of the continued miscues with the conductor, building the line from a more gentle and subdued approach to something more explosive; in a way, it expressed Turandot’s repressed anger making its way out into the world. But throughout, she seemed to favor a more connected legato, with her more potent fortes coming off rather subdued and lacking in bite; if you were hoping for an imposing approach to the role, it never quite landed. Ironically, her approach to high notes, particularly the excruciating “Quel grido” (a leap from C5 sharp to a B6 natural), saw a pause between the two, creating a disconnect in the phrase; Monastyrska would repeat this somewhat choppy approach on most of the high notes littered throughout the remainder of the piece. That aside, when she did hit those high notes, they rocketed sound into the auditorium.
Monastyrska’s best moment came in the opera’s final act, where her desire for a more subdued approach was corresponded by the music itself. She luxuriated in her soothing legato throughout the final duet and you could actually feel the tenderness emerge between her and Yonghoon Lee’s Calaf. And at the climax of the opera, instead of a boisterous proclamation, she imbued “E il suo nome e Amor” with a piano sound that crescendoed gloriously into the ensuing orchestral outburst.
On the other end of the vocal spectrum was tenor Yonghoon Lee. Calaf is, unfortunately, not a particularly compelling character. He’s a man with tunnel-vision dead set on winning a woman that doesn’t want to be won, all while abandoning his father and a woman who truly loves him (but he fails to even notice until she’s dead). He’s a bull running charging after red with no seeming way to stop him. As such, it’s no surprise that Lee’s interpretation would be full of brashness with the tenor showing off his potent and ample squillo. More than any other singer onstage, his voice resounded in the Met’s auditorium with total abandon throughout the night; he never seemed to lose any of the energy or intensity and if anything, it seemed to grow and grow. By the time he was chiding Turandot during “Principessa di morte!” his voice was a rocket of sound consuming everything around him. He coupled quite well with Monastyrska at the climax of her aria, the two blasting intense high C6’s into the space with total abandon. During the riddle scene, Lee’s vocal intensity also grew with each response to the riddle, emphasizing Calaf’s growing confidence and strength in the scene.
And yet, for all that brawn and increased voluminous intensity that he exhibited, Lee’s interpretation was increasingly full of Franco Corelli vibes as the night progressed, imbuing Calaf with increasingly gentler vocal colors. From his approach to the high notes, to how he emphasized his consonants, to how he elegantly diminuendoed the final notes of “E all’alba morirò!” at the end of Act two, Lee’s interpretation invoked the memory of arguably the greatest interpreter of the role.
There was a major contrast between how Lee approached “Non piangere, Liù” with the seminal “Nessun Dorma.” In the former, his voice, while soft at the start, was still a flush of sound belting into the space and the tempo at times seemed to be charging forward constantly; part of this seemed to be compensation for the confusion with the conductor, but on the whole, it was far from the most nuanced of approaches. But “Nessun Dorma” featured far more care and musical development with Lee’s voice more restrained and yearning. While he did propel the tempo forward a few times, there was more malleability and he allowed his voice to hold onto notes at the ends of phrases. A particularly interesting moment came during the end of “d’amore e di speranza!” where he did a silky dimunendo on the phrase only to imbue a final crescendo on the final end of “speranza” that expressed the character’s own confidence. By the time he got to that famed high B6, he had sculpted the aria so that the moment was cathartic and the thunderous applause he received right after, rightfully deserved.
The final duet with Turandot was probably his highest point musically. Puccini always wanted this duet to be a transcendent moment, something akin to what Wagner’s created in “Tristan und Isolde’s” sublime love scene. That he died without ever finding his ending is a true musical tragedy and Alfano’s ending has never quite managed the feat, despite the attempt. But Lee, (and, as mentioned Monastyrska), in collaboration with Armiliato, managed to explore a more varied palette of vocal colors to make this scene stand out from the rest of the opera. The tenor found an even more delicate timbre in “O mio fiore mattutino,” an extension of how he’d been progressing his voice from a potent warrior to a tender lover.
Then there was Ermonela Jaho, the heart and soul of the opera. Jaho is one of opera’s most compelling stars, able to own the spotlight, whether she is onstage or on camera, or BOTH; her Marguerite in Tobias Kratzer’s “Faust” from the Paris Opera is not only a textbook example of a beautiful marriage between film and stage, but, during a notable train sequence, this production also showcases Jaho’s unparalleled interpretational immersion for both camera and stage at the same time. So there’s no surprise that when all was said and done, she was the shining light of this particular production.
Like everyone else around her, things didn’t get off to the best of starts. Sloppy tempi in the pit led to a rather choppy rendition of “Signor, ascolta” where some of the intonation was also spotty. Jaho rescued the aria in its final moments with three gloriously extended high notes, with the last two (an A flat to B flat) dimineundoing and then crescendoing gloriously with an explosion of sound that expressed Liù’s “non regge più.” She was potent in the ensuing ensemble, her voice resonating amidst the messy ensemble.
But Liù’s true moment comes in Act three when she shows all the questionable characters around her a spark of humanity that ultimately fuels the rest of the opera and its fairy tale ending. Jaho’s Liù, while a small figure amidst the rabble, was an imposing figure nonetheless, and she displayed a quiet confidence as she stated “Io so il suo nome, M’è suprema delizia tenerlo segreto e possederlo io sola!” The ensuing “Tanto amore, segreto e inconfesso” was revelatory and really emphasized Jaho’s greatness, her singing sweet and pure, yet tactile in how it connected with you. When at her finest, you don’t see Jaho as an interpreter so much as a creator and this is exactly the effect she had on this aria, unspooling it with every phrase as if for the first time, the passage’s natural crescendo blossoming into a sublime diminuendo from A6 to B6 flat and then again on an expansive A6 fermata to end the piece; that final fermata really made you feel as if Liù, coming to terms with her fate, was grasping onto this final thread of love one last time. That kind of dramatic insight and intensity elevated the entire performance and further emphasized the tragedy of the opera (and consequently why when a Liù interpreter rises to her peak, the rest of the opera and its conclusion can feel so empty). But her genius didn’t end there. “Tu, che di gel sei cinta” is similar in its momentum to the preceding aria. Yet Jaho managed to give this one a feeling of inevitability, her voice almost weeping throughout, the timbre a thin thread of sound; while she addresses Turandot in both, Jaho’s delicacy in this one made it feel more intimate and introspective. She drew the listener into Liù’s final thoughts, thus giving the final crescendo to the end of aria greater pathos. Even when she pulled the dagger and, with an outsized motion, stabbed herself, you believed every moment.
Thankfully this “Turandot” is headed for an HD performance, if only to preserve a true visceral interpretation (or creation) from one opera’s most exhilarating stars.
As Timur, Ferruccio Furlanetto’s voice wept as he said goodbye to his beloved Liù. But as he castigated the mob for its crime, his voice drew up arguably the most impassioned and aggressive singing of the entire night. There was a jaggedness to phrasing and a bite to his consonants as he uttered “L’anima offesa si vendicherà!
As Ping, Pong, Pang, Alexey Lavrov, Tony Stevenson, and Eric Ferring did a solid job, matching one another quite well, even when things seemed unstable in the pit.
A special shoutout to Jeongcheol Cha as the Mandarin, his bass-baritone potent and fresh as he opened the opera. He made a strong immediate impression on the night that made his subsequent entrance later in the opera pleasant.
“Turandot” is a bonafide choral work, with the massive vocal ensemble singing throughout the night. And the Met Opera Chorus was in top form throughout, especially at the climax of Act two and in the opera’s closing moments.
On the whole, this was a mixed evening. While there is no doubt that the performance came together in its final act, the journey to getting there was arduous and frustrating in its first half. But ultimately, the artists onstage were in fine form and Ermonela Jaho alone warrants a trip to the Met for this revival.