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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Opera Review: Peking Bling

A Note From the Management (G sharp): It's catch-up day here at the Superconductor blog...there is lots to write about and I hope you've got your reading glasses on. Two opera reviews and maybe a CD review if I have the energy. So, without further ado, hoodoo, or to-do, awaaay we go...

Turandot at the Met
Everyone onstage: the finale of Turandot. 
Photo by Ken Howard © 2007 The Metropolitan Opera.
OK. Let me start this review by saying that Turandot has a special place in my heart. It was the first opera I ever saw (at the City Opera in 1983) with my parents, and I fell in love with the three riddles (it helped that I was reading The Hobbit at the time) and the antics of Ping, Pang and Pong, the three masque characters who provide this opera with comic relief. That said, for the past 20 years, I have been (more or less) annoyed with Franco Zeffirelli's creaking, cacophonous, overbaked production of this opera, which has held the stage at the Met since 1987.

OK. Enough about the production (for now) The performance:

Despite the technical issues with Ye Olde Beijing, the cast sang very well. Andrea Gruber, heavily made up like the Bride of Frankenstein, sang with a ringing tone, firmly establishing her icy presence as the murderous Princess Turandot. She hit all the big notes in "In Questa Reggia" and charged into the riddle scene, holding the center of the stage despite the distracting-annoying choreography-business that kept taking the eye away from the drama of the opera.

Opposite her, Richard Margison sang with beauty of tone, cutting through the big choruses but never spiraling down towards shrillness. I have seen this singer many times and always found his voice annoying, but not on Monday night--it appears that his voice has aged well and mellowed a bit in recent years. And yes, Virginia, he nailed "Nessun Dorma".

Despite the ferocity of the two leads, the star of the evening was Hei-Kyung Hong, following up her superb Eva in Meistersinger with a sweet, heartbreaking Liu. She floated the pianissimos, (Tebaldi-style) and brought on the heartbreak with her big suicide scene in the final act. It is the sign of a good Turandot (which this was, despite the production) when that scene becomes the emotional climax and core of the whole night, enabling listeners to (for once) ignore the bling and onstage business and focus on the opera.

Unfortunately for the whole cast, their excellent performances were hamstrung by a production that epitomizes pretty much everything that is wrong with big opera productions--bloated sets, bad sight lines and poor decisions on the part of the producer and director. Some examples:

  • A stage design that does not allow people in the Family Circle seats (at the very rear and top of the big house) to see Turandot herself in the first act, nor the Emperor in the second. Apparently, one is only worthy to be in the Royal Presence if one buys more expensive seats. Opera lovers don't sit in the Family Circle because they're cheap--we sit there because those seats, for either $15 or $26, give you the best, warmest sound in the entire house. As Deborah Voight told me in 1997, that's "where all the singers are aiming."

  • The pop-up palace in Act I, (not to mention the pop-up gong, probably added so Luciano Pavarotti wouldn't stagger into it while entering the dark, stairway-filled set) shatters one's suspension of disbelief.

  • Having so many choristers on the cramped set denies the actors playing Liu, Timur, and Calaf an opportunity to act and react to the goings-on. It's pageant without dramatic meaning. No meaning + no terror = no impact.

  • The walkways. Last point, I promise. In building his version of legendary Peking, Zeffirelli decided to add walkways which resemble Japanese nightingale floors--the kind used as burglar alarms in Japanese castles--they crack and creak (loudly) when you walk on 'em. That's especially amusing in the first act, when the children's chorus comes onstage carrying the lanterns and singing a soft melody. They are then drowned out by the Met's own version of Snap, Crackle and Pop!
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.