BWW Review: All Puccini, All the Time at the Met with LA BOHEME and TURANDOT
Sometimes, the Metropolitan Opera seems like an endless Puccini festival. It's particularly apparent this season, when top dogs LA BOHEME, TOSCA and MADAMA BUTTERFLY are joined by TURANDOT and MANON LESCAUT, which are not second drawer, though certainly less popular than the first three. (Let's see how that descriptor applies to the latter when Jonas Kaufmann steps on stage for the new production of LESCAUT.)
Let's see how BOHEME and TURANDOT fared.
Of these operas, for me at least, BOHEME stands out for its endless string of gorgeous arias and its tale of young love and friendship. It also gives the Met the opportunity to try out promising newcomers, without having the success or failure of a performance weighing on one or two performers. This is especially true for the role of Mimi, the seamstress who appears out of nowhere, falls instantly in love with the tenor, becomes ill by the end of Act II (there are four acts, though only two intermissions) and dies quietly before the final curtain.
In recent seasons, sopranos Sonya Yoncheva and Anita Hartig have been standouts in the role and, this season, have proven their mettle as Desdemona (OTELLO) and Liu (TURANDOT), respectively, at the Met. January's addition to the legion of Met Mimis was Maria Agresta, who will be back for further performances in April. She came with some impressive credentials (including Mimi at La Scala and the title role in NORMA in a recent Paris concert performance, among others), but only had mixed results at the performance I heard.
I was particularly surprised that she somehow missed with the can't-miss introductory aria, "Mi chiamano Mimi" ("My name is Mimi"), in which she didn't seem shy but underpowered. Perhaps it was her Rodolfo, tenor Brian Hymel, whose big voice may have intimidated her, even though he politely scaled it back to give her some room to breathe. Then, in Act II, she had to contend with the Musetta, soprano Susanna Phillips, who sang her showpiece, "Quando m'en vo" (Musetta's Waltz) and gobbled up all the oxygen on the stage, so that by the time the curtain went down, practically everyone else had faded from view. (That's a good trick in the mammoth Zeffirelli production, which still looks great but should come with the caution, "Occupancy by more than 5000 is strictly prohibited." Kudos to Assistant Director J. Knighten Smit for keeping it purring like a well-tuned engine.)
Agresta did much better after the intermission, with her voice soaring and beautifully modulated in Act III's "Addio... D'onde lieta usci," even with Quinn Kelsey's powerhouse Marcello to contend with. In all, I'd have to hear her in something else to really know whether there's any "there" there, because even though there was some excellent singing--from her, along with Hymel, Phillips and Kelsey, as well as the other Bohemians, David Pershall (Shaunard), Kihwan Sim (Colline), and John del Carlo in the dual roles of Benoit and Alcindoro--the performance didn't gel. Conductor Dan Ettinger didn't help matters, overpowering the singers more than once.
In some ways, the title role in TURANDOT is the anti-Mimi: There isn't a line of sopranos waiting to sing it. Not because it isn't a great role, but because it's too hard to pull off. Dramatically, there are the two sides to the character: the ice princess who executes all the men who can't answer her riddles and the vulnerable woman who is carried off by love. (She sounds more like BOHEME's Musetta.) Then there's that hair-raising music--Act II specifically--that many want to sing, but few are called to do.
It has been a while since the opera was last on the Met's stage, despite the popularity of the over-the-top Zeffirelli staging (yes, another one), with its ornate costumes by Anna Anni and Dada Saligeri. This year, the Met has managed to find four (count 'em) sopranos to take on the role, though I am not familiar one of them (Jennifer Wilson).
The others are: Christine Goerke, who overwhelmed Met audiences two years ago as the Dyer's Wife in Strauss's DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN, and was shoe-horned in for two performances, as if to show that the Met was paying attention, before her Strauss and Wagner in future seasons. (FYI, she also did a knockout Elektra at Carnegie Hall this season.) Then Lise Lindstrom took on the role, having previously sung it here and being a proven princess world-wide. (I heard her in Berlin and there's a full YouTube performance of her overpowering Roberto Alagna at the Chorégies d'Orange in France, from 2012.)
Finally, at the performance I attended at the Met on January 15, there was Nina Stemme, who returns in a couple of months in the Met's new production of ELEKTRA. Considered one of the world's leading Wagnerians, Stemme also likes Puccini, with a voice suited for Minnie in FANCIULLA DEL WEST and Turandot, with which she opened Milan's Expo last May at La Scala (coincidentally featuring Maria Agresta as Liu).
In a word, she was spectacular at the Met. This is definitely one of those roles where opera-philes are divided: What makes a good Turandot? This was the first opera I heard at the Met, years ago, with Birgit Nilsson in the title role, wielding a voice that was like a stainless steel sword. She took no prisoners and I'll never forget it. But there's more than one way to skin this particular cat and Stemme certainly has a good one, bringing the princess to her knees with a womanly portrayal filled with nuance as well as terror, soaring and softening as called upon. And even if there were some technical things that made me worry if she had the power to make it to the end (which she did, and then some), this was a performance that excited on every level.
That included bringing her tenor, Marco Berti as Calaf, to life. This was the surprise of the evening for me, with Berti seeming inspired by Stemme to give more than he'd previously delivered at the Met. (In particular, I recall a "park and bark" Manrico in IL TROVATORE with plenty of lung-power but little finesse.) Here, he showed much more than that--and heroically stood up to Turandot's pounding riddles. The catch, though was his "Nessun dorma," which need more of a lower register than he could muster, despite his upper range.
Three other principals, in smaller but key roles, were very good, indeed. Soprano Anita Hartig sang gorgeously as the slave, Liu, including a stunningly moving death scene, while bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk brought marvelous resonance and style to the role of Timur, Calaf's blind father, hiding his youthfulness behind the character's flowing beard. Last, but certainly not least, was baritone and Met stalwart Dwayne Croft, as Ping, bringing a real freshness to the role. Ping--with his cohorts Pang (Tony Stevenson) and Pong (Eduardo Valdes)--were often seen as simply "comic relief" in the days before translations made their way to the opera house. The Met's subtitle system lets us understand that these characters are much more than distractions, but caught up in the menacing world of royal machinations (though the lighting from Gil Wechsler, which predates the era of titles, overwhelms them in Act II).
Conductor Paolo Carignani led a propulsive performance from the Met orchestra and the Met chorus, under Donald Palumbo, played a key part in the proceedings, never disappointing. Keeping the many parts of the complex production in motion is no easy task; yet stage director David Kneuss, with J. Knighten Smit and Paula Suozzi made it seem so.
The only problematic part of the opera has nothing to do with the performance itself, but with the composer. He died before finishing his work on Act III (sketching out the rest) and it was left to another opera composer, Franco Alfano, at the behest of the publishers, to complete the final duet and other parts of Act III. (Still another, more recent version, by Luciano Berio, was used at La Scala in May.) At the opera's premiere, Arturo Toscanini famously conducted only the music that Puccini composed, though subsequent performances included the Alfano additions (though trimmed by the conductor).
However, even if Act II were performed on its own, it would be worth the price of admission. While the rest of the opera might not be up to Puccini's incredibly high standard, add a Turandot like Stemme to the mix and any discussion seems moot.
TURANDOT will be shown on January 30 at 12:55 pm ET as part of the Met's LIVE in HD series. See listings.