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Sunday, October 8, 2017

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Turandot

Fantastical, phantasmagorical and faintly ridiculous.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
That's amore: Marcelo Alvarez (center) woos Turandot as thousands cheer.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2017 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Met's elaborate production of Puccini's final opera returns to the delight of people who like "Nessun dorma" and big, elaborate productions.

What is Turandot?
In writing what turned out to be his last work, Puccini took a different path from the verismo works that made him an international success. Turandot forgoes any semblance of realism to present a fantastical, Italianate vision of legendary China, and a dark fairy tale story of a bloodthirsty princess and an Unknown Prince's foolhardy quest to wed her.

What's Turandot about?
The Princess Turandot may be wed by any suitor who answers three difficult riddles before the court. Failure leads to death by decapitation, and hundreds of noblemen have met their fate on the chopping block. The Unknown Prince arrives and answers the riddles, and then challenges her to learn his true name by dawn the next day. All ends happily in a blaze of "Nessun dorma."

What's the music like?
This is one of Puccini's most adventurous and brilliant scores, incorporating a huge orchestra, bitonality and authentic Chinese melodies that Puccini had preserved in a music box in his study. However, the composer's death while working on the third act led to the opera being completed by the composer Franco Alfano. The Met offers the traditional "shortened" Alfano ending, which uses Puccini's materials creatively, but how Turandot was supposed to end remains one of the great operatic mysteries.

Who's in it?
Aleksanders Antonenko, who starred in the Met's 2015 Otello is Calaf in the fall performance. The leather-lunged star tenor Marcelo Àlvarez sings the role of the Unknown Prince in the spring revival. The object of his affections is soprano Oksana Dyka in the fall performances. She will be replaced by Martina Serafin in the spring. Maria Agresta, Hei-Kyung Hong and Guanquin Yu share the role of the slave Lìu, who knows the Prince's secret. Carlo Rizzi and Marco Armiliato will split the conducting duties.

How's the production?
Jaw-dropping. Franco Zeffirelli created a small-scale replica of the Forbidden City, the streets of Peking and the all-gold all-gilt  interior of the Imperial palace. The elaborate sets throng and groan with choristers, dancers, priests, and all manner of supernumeraries. The words "over the top" do not even begin to describe this show.

Why should I see it?
All of the above reasons, and the music is great. This is a stunning staging of this opera and with singers who can tackle the demanding leading roles, a really fun night at the theater.

When does it open?
Turandot returns to the Met staghe on October 12. The spring run of performances opens March 21.

Where can I get tickets?
Tickets  are available through MetOpera.Org or by calling the box office at (212) 362-6000. You can save service fees by going to the box office in person at the Met itself, located at 30 Lincoln Center Plaza. Hours: Monday to Saturday: 10am-8pm, Sunday: 12pm-6pm.

Is there a Live in HD broadcast planned?
Not this year. But the opera has been filmed at the Met at least four times and performances are available on demand or on DVD.

Which recording should I get?
Turandot is widely recorded. Here are two very different classics.'
Orchestra and Chorus of the Academy of St. Cecilia, Rome cond. Erich Leinsdorf
Turandot: Birgit Nilsson
Calaf: Jussi Björling
Líu: Renata Tebaldi
Here it is, folks--the battle of Sweden. Jussi Björling and Birgit Nilsson square off in the Riddle scene in a sing-off for the ages. This is one of Nilsson's two Turandot recordings. The other, on EMI with Franco Corelli as the Unknown Prince, has even more testosterone.

London Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Zubin Mehta (Decca. 1972)
Turandot: Joan Sutherland
Calaf: Luciano Pavarotti
Líu: Montserrat Caballe
Luciano Pavarotti made "Nessun dorma" a trademark in his later years, even going so far as to lip-sync the aria at the opening of the 2004 Olympics in Turin. On this 1972 recording, hear why he was a great Calaf, with a full, rich register and a sweet tone that could melt the heart of any Chinese princess. La Stupenda (that's Dame Joan Sutherland to you non-opera geeks) lives up to her name, producing a studio performance of grace and power in the title role.

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