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Saturday, January 16, 2016



For the first time since the 2012–13 season, Franco Zeffirelli’s production of “Turandot” has been buffed up and sent out to draw the crowds at the Metropolitan Opera.

Crowned by a thoughtful assumption of the title role by a wonderful soprano , "Calaf; ossia, Turandot" opened with a solid performance and to a satisfied reception.

As a symbol for a particular view of what melodramma should be and what it should do, Zeffirelli’s “Turandot” remains unquestionably powerful and undeniably successful.

A byword for excess since its premiere, it’s the Met’s gaudiest, shiniest comfort blanket, and one of the few classic productions left at the house, where old favorites are slowly being phased out.

Clearly not being phased out, though, is the retro, even reactionary, vision of melodramma the “Turandot” represents.

As the scholar Micaela Baranello recently calculated, three out of every four Met performances this season are in Italian — 30% of the calendar is Puccini.

Some think -- NOT Puccinians like me -- that New York's operatic diet has to be more balanced than this.
“Turandot” receives 16 outings, all led by the conductor Paolo Carignani, who cajoles urgent playing from the orchestra and enthusiastic singing from the chorus.

The best soprano is Nina Stemme who will close the set of performances.

At Turandot’s unveiling in the second act, for which Zeffirelli reserves his most ceremonious stagecraft, the whole evening snapped into focus.

If the acting elsewhere was as one-dimensional as the sets were three-dimensional, here was a portrayal that drew out as many of the character’s human subtleties as the production allows.
The steely, indomitable quality of the strongest Turandots is there, to be sure, and the punishingly high tessitura of the tests in the imperial palace posed no problems.

But more interesting was a desperation that came through lower in the register, one that developed into a reaction to Calàf’s forcible kiss in the third act that was so black, so hollow, that the melodramma’s final, triumphant resolution could only be seen as a charade.
Calaf needs a tenor with a tone that should be attractive and clear. It should not grow wearingly unvaried, not least in a “Nessun dorma” that should privilege length of line over declamation.

Another soprano should possess impressive vocal security for the pathetic Liù.

The smaller roles should also be adequately taken: the Emperor, and the Ping, Pang and Pong who shouldn't make their outdated humor stick
Speaking of those “three prattlers who have escaped from a perverted dream of Gilbert and Sullivan,” as one critic put it in 1926, it was impossible to watch the Zeffirelli “Turandot” without thinking about the continuing debate about race in “The Mikado,” or indeed the Met’s correct decision to cease using blackface in Verdi’s “Otello.”
“Turandot,” and Zeffirelli’s “Turandot” in particular, is as forthright in its Orientalism as it is discomforting in its representation of rape.

Unlike “The Mikado,” it cannot plausibly be seen as satire.

Is it right, today, to show “Turandot” so unquestioningly, and so unashamedly?

And in a genre in which so many insist on focusing so strongly on works from a distant past, where do we draw the line of taste and tolerance?

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