Puccini's fairy tale Turandot

Puccini’s grand Turandot with Nina Stemme to be telecast in HD

Trying not to appear to disrespect my experience of Birgit Nilsson at the Met way back in my standing days on Broadway and 39th Street, I’ll say unequivocally that last night Nina Stemme gave one of the best performances of Turandot I’ve ever seen.

  Nina Stemme as Princess Turandot

Nina Stemme as Princess Turandot

Nilsson, right? You had to be there: a typical Nilsson night, live in the house, was a performance of maximum vocal impact, not only as Turandot, but also as any of the Brünnhildes, Isolde, Salome or Elektra. It wasn’t just her endless stamina and the sheer size of her voice, but also its sweet spot, bright, clean, accurate and effortless, cut through a full orchestra and chorus like a hot knife through a stick of butter, this so at least into the mid-1970s. Hildegard Behrens, for most of us Nilsson’s successor in the German repertory, couldn’t quite match that power or, with ease, the volume, and yet I felt that Behrens always added a deeper soul to her characters than La Nilsson, thus making them much more emotionally touching. Her Elektra at the Met from 1994 (captured on DVD) is the total package.

Likewise Nina Stemme. In Turandot’s big scene in Act II, Stemme mostly won the battle, she versus the full Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, entrenched between her and the audience and cranked up to the max by conductor Carlo Carignani. But the scene doesn’t allow much variation in character. Actually, being heard at all is the primary challenge.

Stemme’s Act III, however, was to a degree entrancing: Yes, Turandot’s ice melts at Calaf’s kiss but the warming begins already at Liu’s self-sacrifice and continues later from his sincere professions of love and again with his willingness to reveal his name, thus making himself vulnerable and at her mercy. One feels the warming because Stemme reacts: she makes believable the transformation from a closed, cruel, defensive, emotionally scarred woman to one more accepting, human, possibly loving, not just by singing more softly at times but also by…well, acting softly. It was a beautiful scene and when she announced to all assembled that “His name is Love,” one felt as if the fairy tale had resolved and they lived happily ever after.

  Calaf melts Turandot's icy heart

Calaf melts Turandot's icy heart

This said, one cannot wait to see her as Richard Strauss’s Elektra later this season (spoiler alert: not a happy ending in this one) and, just around the corner, Wagner’s Isolde. Stemme is a genuine dramatic soprano. We welcome her return to the Met.

Stemme was surrounded by a solid cast. Anita Hartig, as Liu, has that bright, clean, accurate Nilssonic edge to an otherwise sweet and expressive voice. Her Liu was both assertive and submissive, genuine in each.

Marco Berti’s Calaf was ringing solidly throughout the first act, certainly holding his own in the second, then early in the third he seemed to tire a bit, but rallied and gave a strong finish. A young Alexander Tsymbalyuk gave solid voice to the ancient Timur, Calaf’s father; Ronald Naldi was the considerably more ancient Emperor Altoum.

Conspicuous in this performance was the elegant Ping of Dwayne Croft, partnered by Tony Stevenson’s Pang and Eduardo Valdes’ Pong. Croft brought a fine vocal line to a role often handed off to the second stringers. The three ruminate and reflect on happier days, Act II, Scene I, which brings genuine repose before the vocal roar to come in Scene II. See the page Addenda for more on the three Ps.

Conductor Paolo Carignani started the opera in a rush, exciting, but rushed, though later settling down to allow Puccini’s aural atmospheres to rise with the moon. He favored volume, but not at the expense of orchestral details; the chorus rose mightily to their considerable opportunities to impress.

  ...happily ever after

...happily ever after

As Metropolitan Opera productions go these days, the opulent Turandot production by Franco Zeffirelli is something of a fossil. No, it’s not quite as old as Zeffirelli’s treasured La Bohème (1982), indeed I’ve heard some fans swear that if the Met puts this Bohème out to pasture, so go they (without specifying exactly where that pasture is). But the Turandot, which was new in the spring of 1987 (and reviewed even back then by yours truly), always was and remains today an impact piece both by the size of its sights and by the size of its sounds.

It is still a really good show today as it has been ever since then, and even better with Nina Stemme in the title role. Don’t miss it!

Reviewed performance date: January 11, 2016, again the dead of winter, but no snow.

Photos: Marty Sohl

Turandot is performed here in three acts. The running time of the HD performance is just about three and a half hours, including two intermissions.

Enjoy! Make it special! Think big!