Swedish dramatic soprano Nina Stemme sings her first Met performances of the demanding title role of Puccini’s imperious Chinese princess, with Anita Hartig in her company role debut as the angelic slave girl Liù. Marco Berti sings Calàf, the suitor who risks his head for Turandot’s hand, and Alexander Tsymbalyuksings Timur. Paolo Carignani conducts Franco Zeffirelli‘s visually stunning 1987 production.
The opera, which premiered at La Scala, Milan in 1926, is an epic fairy tale set in a China of legend. Featuring a most unusual score with an astounding and innovative use of chorus and orchestra, it is still recognizably Puccini, bursting with instantly appealing melody. The unenviable task of completing the opera’s final scene upon Puccini’s sudden death was left to the composer Franco Alfano. Conductor Arturo Toscanini oversaw Alfano’s contribution and led the world premiere.
The story has its roots in various folk tales about a princess who tests the worthiness of her suitors by posing a series of riddles and who has those who answer incorrectly killed. The characters of Ping, Pang, and Pong are descended from the Italian tradition of commedia dell’arte that influenced much of the opera and drama of the 20th century. Toscanini oversaw Alfano’s contribution and led the world premiere. The opening night performance omitted the Alfano finale, with Toscanini putting down his baton where Puccini had abandoned the score when he died.
The works of Alfano are rarely performed today, though Cyrano de Bergerac (1936) was seen at the Met in 2005. The librettists for Turandot were the playwright and journalist Giuseppe Adami, who had previously worked with Puccini on Il Tabarro and La Rondine, and Renato Simoni, who had written librettos for other composers. The source of the story was the play “Turandot” by the 18th century Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi who wrote satirical fantasies and later tragedies for the Venetian stage at a time of intense debate about the relative merits of realism and fantasy in dramatic art.
The Met gave the United States premiere of Turandot in 1926, shortly after the Milan premiere. Tullio Serafin conducted a cast featuring one of Puccini’s favorite sopranos in the title role, Maria Jeritza, paired with Giacomo Lauri-Volpi as Calàf
Reviewing the present production, The New York Times noted that “[Nina Stemme] managed to render the grisly ice maiden surprisingly vulnerable… Her powerful, luxuriant voice retained its warmth throughout the evening, with blazing high notes that were never forced or shrill, even when projected over the massed ensembles of orchestra and chorus… The soprano Anita Hartig sang beautifully as the self-sacrificing Liu, her alluring voice plaintive and expressive; the rich-voiced bass-baritone Alexander Tsymbalyuk rendered Timur with dignity. Paolo Carignani conducted a lithe and detailed reading of Puccini’s sumptuous score.”
New York Classical Review enthused, “The Emperor’s palace is one of the most blindingly opulent scenes the Met has to offer… The supporting cast was excellent, particularly Alexander Tsymbalyuk as the old king Timur. He showed a spacious, rich, mahogany-colored bass-baritone, and conveyed extraordinary pathos in his portrayal.”
Soprano Renée Fleming hosts the broadcast.
Turandot was originally seen live in movie theaters on January 30 as part of the groundbreaking The Met: Live in HD series, which transmits live performances to more than 2,000 movie theaters and performing arts centers in over 70 countries around the world. The Live in HD series has reached a record-breaking 20 million viewers since its inception in 2006.
Great Performances at the Met is a presentation of THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET, one of America’s most prolific and respected public media providers.