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Thursday, October 1, 2015

Opera Review: Ice, Ice, Princess

Christine Goerke reigns in the Met's Turandot.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A love supreme: Christine Goerke as Turandot.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2015 The Metropolitan Opera.
One of the problems with the Metropolitan Opera's 20-year-old production of Turandot is that audiences come not for the singing, but for the sumptuous sets, elaborately costumed choruses and a fantastical vision of legendary China as seen through the Italianate lenses of composer Giacomo Puccini and producer Franco Zeffirelli. This year, though, things are different, and not just in the opening crowd scene and refreshed choreography.

On Wednesday night, in the third Turandot of this young season, Christine Goerke and Marcelo Àlvarez delivered old school performances, with big voices and heroic performances that dominated the gigantic sets and held a packed house rapt. Ms. Goerke's star has risen fast in recent years, and this performance showed why: she has a gripping stage presence anchored around a taut, secure voice that can belt out thrilling on-pitch high notes and yet bring color and thought to each word, making this difficult character a human and not some bloodthirsty cartoon.

Turandot doesn't get to sing in the first act, so the audience had to wait nearly an hour before the soprano had her first lines. This is "In questia reggia," an aria that delves into the Chinese princesses motivations and the reason for her quest to behead every man who would woo her. Ms. Goerke sang with ferocity and conviction, with the Princess'  motivations sound perfectly reasonable. This was Turandot not as the cold villain but as a fabulous and worthy prize, well worth the risk of decapitation by executioner (and opera critic) alike.

Taking that risk was the Unknown Prince, played by Mr. Alvarez. His voice has darkened and aged beautifully, acquiring some baritone coloring and additional power without turning leathery. He cut through the swirling crowd at his entrance, delivered a moving "Non piangare Líu," and bashed the gong with enthusiasm as he took up Turandot's challenge. The Riddle Scene had these two fine singers squaring off against each other, delivering their upward-reaching lines with determination and enthusiasm. It was great stuff.

The aria that opens Act III, "Nessun, dorma" has transcended the stage to become an anthem for sporting events and the later career of certain late Italian tenors. Here, Mr. Alvarez made this short, difficult aria his own, nailing the big high note at the end of "Vincero!" and more importantly staying in character as the action quickly rolled forward. The next scene was dominated by soprano Hibla Gerzmava as Líu, the slave-girl who knows the Prince's secret but kills herself rather than reveal it.

Líu is the last of Puccini's great pathetique heroines and she has a particularly ignominious end. However, Ms. Gerzmava made this scene touching and powerful, singing this music and her Act I aria "Signor, ascolta" with rich, chocolatey tone.  Veteran bass-baritone James Morris using the last bits of his voice to deliver a touching performance as the Prince's elderly father Timur. The three Masks, led by Dwayne Croft's ever reliable Ping, were a bit of needed comic relief and their Act II trio drew a warm wave of appreciative applause from the house.

While Líu's sacrifice that finally melts Turandot's heart,  it is at this point that Puccini died without finishing the opera. Composer Francisco Alfano was enlisted to complete the work. To his credit, conductor Paolo Carignani and the Met Orchestra swung into the Alfano music without missing a beat, keeping the opera flowing forward through the big duet that starts with "Principessa di morte." Mr. Alvarez and Ms. Goerke each sang with commitment and passion, navigating this not-quite-human sea of post-Wagnerian emotion, and making the final scenes of the opera come off as much more than a necessary afterthought.

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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.