Puccini - Turandot

Metropolitan Opera, New York, Monday January 4 2010

Conductor: Andris Nelsons. Production, sets: Franco Zeffirelli. Turandot: Maria Guleghina. Liu: Maija Kovalevska. Calaf: Salvatore Licitra. Timur: Hao Jiang Tian. Ping: Joshua Hopkins. Pang: Tony Stevenson. Pong: Eduardo Valdes. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

If it had ever reached the stage with such a cast (unlikely), this performance of Turandot, applauded, albeit not rapturously, in New York would have been booed in Europe. It seems to me that this is the only major house where an evening of this kind is possible and I believe there's a Met "system" that makes it so. But I know how risky it is for us trashy Europeans to criticise the Met and for that reason, before daring to do so, went to parterre.com, where they seem to know their stuff, to check what was being said there.

Here's a much abbreviated sample: "I was in the house Monday, and this was, bar none, some of the worst singing I’ve ever heard in the house [...] Licitra [...] was beyond painful. Guleghina at least attempted to be musical [...] This was one of the most disconcerting performances I’ve sat through in a long time. The Met should be beyond embarrassed to allow either of these singers to perform these roles..."

"Disconcerting" was the word most in my mind at the end. Maria Guleghina, excellent in Puccini 15 years ago, did indeed make efforts to nuance her part, resorting gamely but laboriously to every trick in the trade, including unfortunate whimpering or mewing in attempts to sing pianissimo, the one thing her voice still unmistakeably has being volume. My companion and I wondered what roles she should be singing; we hit on nothing in particular but as her top is unreliable and her bottom even more so and short-winded to boot, it seemed clear she should be aiming for parts in the middle, where she might still excel. I should add that she also had a stab at acting, but as there rarely seems to be anyone around at the Met to help singers in this department, the result was a throwback to silent movies and Sarah Bernhardt.

Salvatore Licitra made no attempt at acting; on the contrary his absence of presence, if I might put it that way, was striking. But I imagine he was very much preoccupied with struggling through the evening, and a struggle it was, as that evening wore on, even to come in at the right moments, let alone sing with even timbre or projection or the right notes. Here I'll quote another contribution to parterre.com, just to show it wasn't only me: “'Nessun Dorma' was a disaster [...] It wasn’t simply a minor slip-up that the Parterre cognoscenti are capable of picking up [...] This was a horrendous botching of the piece that somebody off the street would have noticed. I couldn’t believe it." Neither could I.

Yet Guleghina and Licitra have voices, if only they were put to better use. As I've said before in writing up Met performances, I don't think the fault lies entirely, if at all, with the singers. I found myself wondering what it must be like to be up there in America's greatest house in front of 3,000 people just knowing you're making a total hash of it yet having to grind on to the end. I'm sure I'd just want to disappear through a hole in the stage. Why does the Met invite or allow its "stars" to do it, whichever is the case? And why doesn't the Met audience let the singers know, instead of applauding politely come what may? It would be doing them a service. I honestly believe there's something in the way the Met operates that leads inevitably to these disconcerting evenings, and as honestly believe they are unique to the Met. I see that is also being debated on the web following Monday evening's performance and radio broadcasts.

Maija Kovaleska's straightforward singing, maybe a touch shrill and monotonous, came as a relief after her partners' audible travails and that's no doubt why she got the most applause. Ping, Pang and Pong ("Pif, Paf, Pouf" as my French neighbour called them, getting mixed up with Offenbach) were better than usual and perhaps the best in the show, though the Met website surprisingly doesn't say who they were. But what sort of Turandot is it where Ping, Pang and Pong are the highlights? What often happens in such circumstances is that the orchestra and chorus "rise to the occasion," saving the day by ringing out gloriously and blasting our tiaras off, but that was not the case, either, on Monday evening, which was simply "unworthy of New York," to quote my neighbour again.

I don't think I need dwell on Zeffirelli's production as many people have seen it live or in photos. It is lavish and spectacular and actually a good deal better than his Tosca, and would have worked well with better singers. Zeffirelli throws in every Chinese cliché but the kitchen sink: acrobats, dragons, dancing maidens with trailing sleeves, girls twirling ribbons, men parading banners... there may even have been kitchen sinks in there somewhere, silver ones with glitter and gold ones with pearls, so crowded was the Met's narrow stage. Extras had to step over the grovelling populace, crawling around all over the place like rats. It was all show and, apart from crowd movements, not much directing, as we saw above.

"Great Opera is Great Theater" says the Met's advertising. I agree, but I have never seen much of either at the Lincoln Center so far. My bad luck, maybe, but if so it's been a long run.

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