Monday 1 February 2016

Turandot - Metropolitan Opera HD Live at the Chelsea Cinema

Puccini Turandot - Metropolitan Opera New York
Puccini Turandot closing scene - Metropolitan Opera New York
Puccini Turandot; Nina Stemme, Marco Berti, Anita Hartig, dir: Franco Zeffirelli, cond: Paolo Carignani; The Metropolitan Opera HD Live at the Chelsea Cinema
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 30 2016
Star rating: 3.5
Zefferelli's over the top Chinese extravaganza live in HD from the Met

Franco Zeffirelli's 1987 production of Puccini's Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, is the sort of highly detailed, large scale production for which a film can give the viewer a better sense of the detail than someone sitting in the vast expanse of the Metropolitan Opera itself. It is not a production that I have seen live (though I have seen other Zeffirelli productions including La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera), so the Met HD Live broadcast was a good opportunity to experience the production in the comfort of the Chelsea Cinema, and was made particularly tempting by the presence of Nina Stemme as Turandot. (This revival of the production has run since September 2015 and the role of Turandot was shared between four sopranos.)

Nina Stemme - Puccini Turandot - Metropolitan Opera, New York
Nina Stemme
The opera was conducted by Paolo Carignani, with Marco Berti as Calaf, Anita Hartig as Liu, Alexander Tsymbalyuk as Timur, and Ronald Naldi as Altoum, Ping, Pong and Pang were Dwayne Croft, Tony Stevenson and Eduardo Valdes. A curiosity of the Met programming and billing is that the names of the singers performing Ping, Pong and Pang were not listed either in the printed handbill given us or in the pre-opera credits. (In the UK these roles tend to get equal billing with the rest of the cast).

The production was originally directed by Franco Zefferelli, who designed the sets, with costumes by Anna Anni and Dada Saligeri, choreography by Chiang Ching and the stage director was David Kneuss and the film director was Barbara Willis Sweete. It is a huge production, not just in the number of performers and the elaboration of the sets but in the way each set (one different for each act) is built out of myriad pieces (part of the film programme included footage of the stage hands striking and building the sets and I would have happily watched this for the whole interval).

 Renee Fleming (who was the film host) interviewed the original choreographer Chiang Ching and she explained that Zefferelli's inspiration was the Chinese opera. And indeed the production takes its sense of hyperactivity from this, the cast were in constant motion and the leads had to work against and in the midst of teeming activity. The Act One set was remarkably gloomy and dull in colour, and even the moon when it appeared seemed dim, only when Turandot makes her appearance did we get a bit of magic when her entire palace suddenly rose up at the back! Act Two scene one was played on the fore-stage and had a fairly conventional setting, but the magic came when this disappeared to reveal Zefferelli's 'A Night at the Chinese Opera' setting for the second scene. This was a miracle of tasteful, over the top design, but frankly it was difficult to see who was whom.

Puccini Turandot - Metropolitan Opera New York
Puccini Turandot Act 1 - Metropolitan Opera New York
With a run of 16 performances and four Turandots playing to three Calafs, it is not surprisingly that David Kneuss's role seems to have been more as traffic policeman than anything else. The camera closeups highlighted amount of old fashioned operatic acting that we were getting, something which perhaps carries well in the large theatre but does not work so well close up. Within this there were some notable performances.

The stand out role, achieving magic every time she performed, was Anita Hartig as Liu. She brought real intensity to the role, combined with a sense of line and a feel for the shape of Puccini's music. Her account of Liu's great arias was spine tingling and, almost single-handedly, she raised the intensity of the performance during Liu's great death scene.

Anita Hartig, Nina Stemme - Puccini Turandot - Metropolitan Opera, New York
Anita Hartig, Nina Stemme
Nina Stemme in the title role was impressive, but the role is written in a way which means that the performer is standing alone and barely interacts with anyone else until the closing scene. Stemme's Turandot was more angry than icy, and in her interval interview with Fleming she talked about using the voice as a shield. It was an interesting concept, and it made Turandot seem human without making her melt too early, but it did mean that for most of her first scene (Act Two, scene two) and much of Act Three, Stemme's Turandot seemed to be mainly angry. Stemme's singing had her familiar trademark of intensity, and vibrancy and despite a substantial vibrato she really nailed the tricky high lines so that they came out admirably even and laser like.

Marco Berti's Calaf was more resolute and not a little dogged, rather than charismatic. He had the virtue of pacing himself well so that he sang the riddle scene strongly and Nessun dorma, and still had power and resolve for the ending. His singing was strong and not a little shapely, but without that frisson that you really want. Perhaps the problem was the apparent lack of spark between him and Stemme's Turandot. Whereas in Liu's death scene his dogged determination in the face of the onslaught from Turandot's minions created a real sense of drama.

It did not help that Ping, Pong and Pang were played very much as light roles. The three performers, all Met regulars, simply did not bring out the threatening edgy sense to the characters which other productions have. It is important that the seem nasty as well as amusing, and this was not the case. It did not help that they were doubled by three dancers who capered about in a manner which was striking but hardly terrorising.

Puccini Turandot - Metropolitan Opera New York
Puccini Turandot Act 1 - Metropolitan Opera New York
Alexander Tysmbalyuk, far younger than the age of his character, made a powerful Timur, but the character is not a strong one but Tysmbalyuk's performance had the virtue of strengthening that of Hartig's Liu.

Conductor Paolo Carignani conducted efficiently, bringing out the power of the score and allowing some subtle moments too. But overall, subtlety is not this productions virtue, it aims to overwhelm. In the theatre, I did wonder whether it would be possible to pick out the detail of the principals against the hyperactive background.

Being a film transmission, there were intermission features and advert before-hand. This meant that before the opera and between the acts we kept being assailed by random bit of opera (especially Wagner) which seemed entirely inappropriate, though I have to admit that it did not seem to bother the near capacity audience. Similarly I could have done without the interviews with the cast conducted by Renee Fleming, but all did their best and you can hardly be feeling your most interviewable between the acts of a taxing opera like Turandot. As I mentioned, I would have quite happily watched the stage crew for the whole intermission, and the most interesting interviews were with stage managers and technical crew.

Marco Berti, Nina Stemme - Puccini Turandot - Metropolitan Opera, New York
Nina Stemme, Marco Berti
Watching these film transmissions of live opera is a fascinating way to catch productions which you might otherwise not see, and a chance to appreciate performances in the relative comfort of the cinema. But this certainly does not replace live opera for me, and whilst some productions work well in the cinema, it is clear that film also highlights any faults in the production and without strong input from a director the weakness of personen regie and individual operatic acting styles can be highlighted.

The Zeffirelli production of Turandot is clearly loved by the Met and its audiences, but I could not help but compare it to another long running production, Andrei Serban's Covent Garden production. This latter seems to manage to combine spectacle, with a sense of the underlying threat as well as bringing out the symbolism in Puccini's opera, which the Met production seemed content not to do. It was Turandot as pure fairy-tale

The opera was also broadcast on BBC Radio 3 so you can hear it for 30 days on BBC iPlayer.
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