A fresh cast and Ukrainian soprano lift the Met’s spring “Turandot”

Sun May 01, 2022 at 1:39 pm
Liudmyla Monastyrska takes a curtain call wrapped in the Ukrainian flag following Saturday night’s performance of Puccini’s Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

With a sturdy-voiced Ukrainian soprano replacing the star who withdrew amid controversy over her relationship to the current Russian government, Puccini’s final opera Turandot returned to the Metropolitan Opera stage for its spring run Saturday night.

As always, Franco Zeffirelli’s fantasy setting of a Chinese imperial court, with its gilded terraces, liveried attendants, long-sleeved ladies-in-waiting, dancers, mimes, and acrobats—and the common people slithering around on all fours like lower-level primates—was an eye-popping spectacle. But so is the Rose Parade. The question was, can the new cast make Puccini’s score and story sing?

Vocally, the singers in the principal roles were up to the task, and in the case of tenor Yonghoon Lee as the prince-suitor Calàf, well beyond that. Dramatically, they seemed to be feeling their way through Zeffirelli’s conception of a decadent regime in need of reviving by a virile outsider, without really driving the point home.

Granted, that was a lot to ask in this not-quite-Wagner, not-quite-Stravinsky, not-quite-verismo, not-quite-finished opera. But if the production’s blocking calls for Calàf to wander among the ritually-posed courtiers like a pouty, alienated James Dean, one would like him to project that attitude, rather than look as though he doesn’t quite know where to stand in the tableau.

And after a long history of cuts and rewrites, the final scene of Calàf and Turandot alone onstage, composed by Franco Alfano using the late Puccini’s sketches, remains intractable. It certainly needs something other than revival director J. Knighten Smit’s conventional criss-cross blocking. Maybe it would be best to discard realism entirely and just stipulate that he successfully woos her, and then sit back and enjoy the singing.

Which, for the two leads at that point Saturday evening, was in full flower. Lee’s voice, broad-based yet focused, sounded terrific from Act I on. But even this very assertive role would have benefited from some throttling back here and there—the iconic, nocturnal “Nessun dorma” started loud and just got louder, perhaps to make sure “nobody sleeps.” And Lee’s wide-spaced singing stance quickly became a macho mannerism.

Stepping in for the jettisoned Anna Netrebko as Turandot, soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska at first sounded somewhat fluttery and rough in “In questa reggia” but found true imperious tone as she posed her fateful riddles to the young prince. The closing scene may have been unconvincing dramatically, yet this ice princess’s vocal melting into “just a woman” was aurally satisfying.

In supporting roles, soprano Ermonela Jaho was a model of delicate inflection and exquisite pianissimos as the faithful, secretly-smitten servant Liù. In a night short on ovations by Met standards (except for the applause-begging “Nessun dorma”), Jaho’s beseeching “Signore, ascolta” in Act I earned the warmest audience response.

Celebrated bass Ferruccio Furlanetto was rich casting indeed as Timur. He was a friendly, if indistinct, presence as Calàf’s father in the early scenes, and sang most affectingly to his dead servant girl in the last act. (Though one couldn’t shake the thought of Puccini and librettist Giuseppe Adami saying “some pathos needed here.”)

In the opera’s source, Carlo Gozzi’s 18th-century Venetian play, the imperial officials Ping, Pang, and Pong were commedia dell’ arte characters, and their names in the opera seem to promise comical Chinese stereotypes.  However, Puccini wrote them, and Zeffirelli staged them, as quite reasonable plot-advancers, urging Calàf to escape this bloodthirsty court while he can. Their Act II trio “Ola, Pang!” about longing for their homes in the country, though a somewhat inartful insertion in the opera, was feelingly sung by the hearty-voiced baritone Alexey Lavrov as the Lord Chancellor Ping, ably supported by Tony Stevenson as the majordomo Pang and Eric Ferring as the head chef Pong.

Jeongcheol Cha was a stout-toned Mandarin announcing edicts and ceremonies, and Carlo Bosi was appropriately dim of voice as Turandot’s doddering father, the “mighty” Emperor Altoum.

Despite having to spend much of the evening in a simian crouch, chorus master Donald Palumbo’s Met chorus enhanced this drama in every mood, be it barbaric or dreamy.

Conductor Marco Armiliato led Puccini’s percussion-heavy orchestra with panache—the piccolo got a workout, and even the horns seemed to jangle—but also managed some lovely intertwining of the winds with Liù’s vocal curlicues.

After the final curtain, soprano Monastyrska came out for her bow spreading what looked like a colorful cloak, until she wrapped it around her, revealing the blue and yellow bands of the Ukrainian flag. The audience roared its support for her and her country.

Turandot has four more performances through May 14. metopera.org.

11 Responses to “A fresh cast and Ukrainian soprano lift the Met’s spring “Turandot””

  1. Posted May 02, 2022 at 8:41 am by Natalya

    Opera stage should not be used for political statements. Sorry…

  2. Posted May 02, 2022 at 3:27 pm by STEPHEN W CHAPPELL

    A gangster and his barbarian army murdering thousands of innocent men, women, and children is not “political”. Oh, and opera has always had political nuances. (see Fidelio)

  3. Posted May 02, 2022 at 4:11 pm by Dr Rosemarie Yevich

    Ditto comment above
    Begging for more applause by porting a political sign is downright tacky

  4. Posted May 02, 2022 at 8:49 pm by anna Romanyschyn

    You consider it “tacky” to show a Ukrainian flag by a singer whose county is torn apart by Russian hordes! You are disgusting in your ignorance!

    And no, Ms Liudmyla Monastyrska does not need “gimmicks” for applause! SHE HAS A VOICE! She is not a marketing machine’s product like the spineless singer who got FIRED by all major opera houses for supporting Putin’s genocide of Ukraine.

    Shame on you!

  5. Posted May 03, 2022 at 6:57 am by John

    Much of her family is still in Ukraine. In a curtain call she is entitled to show her love of country.

    Are you also implying that ehe Met should not have held a benefit concert for Ukraine because it was

  6. Posted May 03, 2022 at 5:53 pm by Peter Ronald Brumlik

    In Colorado we applaud anyone who stands up for their country especially, a country that is being ravaged. Art has always been political and opera is no exception. Bravo to the met for taking a stance and making my trip to New York worthwhile.

  7. Posted May 04, 2022 at 11:19 am by Lori

    Saw the performance last night as it was being recorded. I still love Zeffirelli productions and always will. I found Monastyrska‘s performance really disappointing. Sorry. Perhaps the pressure to perform after the opening night, the performance being recorded and replacing Netrebko (let’s face it–it was her name that sold the tickets and the blocks of empty seats tended to proved it) was a lot to deal with.

    Liu was almost excellent- but she was sympathetic and she was a good actress. I thought the chorus was amazing and it’s really the most gorgeous part of the score along with Nessum, of course. Yonghoon Lee was very impressive with a voice that actually fills the house.

    Nice to be back at the Met!

  8. Posted May 05, 2022 at 4:43 pm by Stan

    The Met should get rid of Peter Gelb, not Anna Netrebko.

    As I understand it, she was fired because she was Russian and she did not denounce Putin. I am not at all, by any means defending Putin (he is a murderer who deserves to be tried and executed for the war crimes he has commited) but did it ever occur to Peter Gelb that Anna Netrebko has family in Russia and a thug like Putin would go after her family if she said anything against Putin in public? Obviously not.

    I might further add that just this week there was news about a self-made Russian billionaire who had started a bank was forced to sell his interests in that bank and is now in hiding fearing for his life, all because he said Putin was wrong.

  9. Posted May 06, 2022 at 1:08 am by jane christo

    I agree with Stan. Anyone who has lived in a country run by a dictator knows that one cannot publically criticize him/her. I have a friend whose parents were thrown in jail for praticing ther religion in a country where it was illegal. One of them died in jail.

    Anna N has family in Russia. Putin is a vengeful murderer. Ms. Netrebko has been called a traitor and an enemy of the State for the statement she issued.

  10. Posted Jun 13, 2022 at 4:44 am by SM

    Just seen this production in our local cinema and was very disappointed by Calaf and Turandot – Lee in particular started at mezzo forte and then got worse. Has anyone ever told him that singing is about more than who can yell the loudest?

    Thank goodness for Jaho, who was the only redeeming feature.

  11. Posted Oct 23, 2022 at 5:23 pm by Myra

    Natalya please go back to the hole you crawled out of in Russia. Glory to UKRAINE!

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