This season video documents of performances by the Metropolitan (Met) Opera began on opening night, October 3, 2019, with a performance of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot. According to the chronology on the Wikipedia page for the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series, this was the third performance of the opera to be given the “live telecast” treatment, the other two taking place during the 2009–2010 season and the 2015–2016 season. All were telecasts of the full grandeur of the staging by Franco Zeffirelli, as much a feast for the eyes as for the ears. From a musical point of view, this was also the first Puccini opera to be conducted by the new Music Director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (who is also the Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra).
The video content of these programs is subsequently passed on to PBS, which airs it under the Great Performances at the Met rubric. Here in the Bay Area the first telecast of this particular production took place on March 29. I have set up my xfinity service to record automatically every broadcast in this series. I decided to spend this afternoon viewing that recording, rather than making another venture into video streamed in cyberspace.
Having seen the “live” performance from the 2009–2010 season, I knew exactly what to expect from Zeffirelli’s staging. This time the broadcast served as a memorial for Zeffirelli, who died last year. His track record with the Met was extensive; but Turandot has to stand out for its lush spectacle that consistently emerges as appropriate, rather than excessive. However, whatever pleasure I seem to take consistently from the staging, I was definitely in this situation for the music, particularly coming from the conductor’s podium.
Turandot may have some of the loudest moments in the entire operatic repertoire, but it also has one of the widest overall dynamic ranges. Nézet-Séguin distinguished himself by consistently bringing all necessary expressiveness to all of the softer moments. This particularly benefited Eleonora Buratto in the role of Liù, since her command of the softer embellishments in her vocal line always came through with impeccable clarity. On the other hand Nézet-Séguin definitely commanded attention for his consistently absorbing command of gradual crescendo. There are more of these moments in Puccini’s score than I can enumerate; but he consistently knew how to hold back on dynamics to make sure that the “highest peak” always registered with the full impact it deserves.
Of course both of the leading vocalists, tenor Yusif Eyvazov as Calàf and soprano Christine Goerke in the title role also have to command the higher-volume dynamics. To some extent Goerke had the advantage, because we see much less of Turandot than we do of Calàf. Much of her intensity derived from her stage presence, which was never anything less than riveting. Nevertheless, she has several dramatically crucial climaxes, each of which was given all the impact it deserves. (Watching Goerke in action was a particular delight, having relished her every move when she sang the title role in Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” at the beginning of the 2017–2018 season of the San Francisco Opera.) Eyvazov, on the other hand, had to deal with more of the opera’s episodes. Nevertheless, through his chemistry with Nézet-Séguin, he knew exactly how to pace himself to make sure that the most significant of the climaxes were the ones that registered with the greatest impact.
There is also a sidebar that deserves recognition, even if it is only because this was the first time I was aware of it. As many may know, the source of the narrative for Turandot comes primarily from a play of the same name by Carlo Gozzi. Gozzi was a leading champion of commedia dell’arte in eighteenth-century Venice. Puccini’s librettists, Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, decided that those commedia dell’arte roots should not be entirely neglected; and, as a result, Ping, Pang, and Pong play a significant role in the libretto’s narrative structure. These are clearly based on stock characters in commedia dell’arte; and, in this season’s broadcast, Alexey Lavrov, Tony Stevenson, and Eduardo Valdes (respectively) knew exactly how to capture those roots without ever compromising the more serious dramatic values of the libretto.
Even when the grandeur is at its greatest, it is nice to know that the little things have not been neglected!