Franco Zeffirelli’s sumptuous, gaudy, excessive, over-the-top, or whatever suits your taste production of Puccini’s Turandot was broadcast in HD November 7, 2009. Unfortunately, the transmission was repeatedly interrupted by dropped audio, and occasionally video, signals. An announcement in our theater was made that the problem was global and that the Met was trying to fix it. Perhaps it would have been better to have referred the matter to Congress as they seem to have the time and inclination to fix anything. Not an enjoyable experience. Technical problems have been an ongoing feature of these broadcasts. I don’t have enough knowledge to know how fixable these difficulties are.

Puccini’s final incomplete opera is clearly his most technically advanced, but it suffers from the burden created by its two protagonists. They are, simply put, repellent. The tenor, Calaf, is a self centered narcissist (forgive the redundancy, but he deserves it) who doesn’t give a gnat’s ass about anything other than what he wants. The soprano is worse. She seems to have drawn from “Venus in Furs”, “Psychopathia Sexualis”, and “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality”. Her only pleasure is decapitating as many men as she can lay her sword on. Her head-hunting career is in its third year as the opera starts. She’s got 22 heads on her belt. She’s out to revenge an assault by the King of the Tartars on her ancestor Lo-u-Ling “Many thousands of years ago.” This is not your typical Puccini heroine. She inflicts torture instead of receiving it like Butterfly or Suor Angelica. Thus the necessity of Liu, the short-suffering slave girl who gets the really good Puccini soprano tunes.

Had Puccini lived he doubtless would have made many changes to what is an incomplete first draft. But if spinach were chicken soup Popeye would never get a cold. So Turandot is what it is. An unfinished opera that still is a masterpiece and is the last of the great Italian operas. After this the rest is noise. It works if you have a two great sopranos, a great tenor, a great chorus, and a great orchestra.

Maria Guleghina is new to the title role. She did about as much with the role as anyone not named Birgit Nilsson can do. She was able to manage the demand for Wagnerian volume though her high notes sometimes wobbled and her soft ones occasionally strayed from the correct pitch. But considering the difficulty inherent in Turandot, an honorable essay.

Marcello Giordani recently has been singing lyric roles like they were written for a spinto, so it was edifying to hear him in a real spinto role. His tone was bright and his high notes ringing. Having heard him in the house numerous times I’m sure he had the necessary volume. My only quibble is that he has made the decision to eschew deep chest resonance for his low notes making them almost inaudible.

When Nilsson and Corelli sang Turandot together they held their high notes so long that EMS had to be called to prevent their deaths from asphyxiation. No need for emergency services here. Guleghina’s and Giordano’s  high notes were there, but they didn’t stay for dinner.  The tenor did very well with “Nessun Dorma”. The great tune was well sung and capped with a ringing “Vincerò”. Interestingly, while this aria is indelibly associated with Luciano Pavarotti, the late tenor only gave six performances of the complete opera at the Met – all in 1997 when he was about 20 years past his peak.

The best singing of the afternoon came from newcomer Marina Poplavskaya as Liu. This was only her eighth performance at the New York house. She debuted there in 2007 as Natasha in Prokofiev’s War and Peace. She has a lovely lyric voice that handled the role’s pianissimos with ease and grace. She says she prefers Italian roles to Russian. I think she said she’s going to sing Violetta at the Met next season. Also, she looks as good as she sounds. Another operatic beauty from the land of the Czars – Russia not Washington.

Samuel Ramey’s voice has become a sine curve. Timur is not a stressful role so his wobble was tolerable. The great bass should hang it up and not stain the memory of his glorious, though undeniably past, performances.

Thirty year old Andris Nelsons  is a Latvian conductor (I know the name doesn’t sound Latvian – as if I know what Latvian sounds like); he is the principal conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He lead an energetic and well paced performance allowing that it’s hard to judge the sound of an orchestra from a telecast that’s pulsing in and out.

Puccini’s choruses in Turandot rival those of Mussorgsky. As expected the Met’s chorus was brilliant.

Gary Halvorson was the video director. As is typical for these telecasts there were too many close ups. This was even more a problem for this production which sprawls across the Met’s vast stage and which is almost as busy as a second of one of James Joyce’s daydreams.

The broadcast had an intermission feature about severed heads – really. They pop up from time to time in opera. The designer in charge of severed heads was interviewed by hostess Patricia Racette. The ensuing discussion though specialized was edifying. Someone should tell the designer in charge of severed heads that a head once disconnected from the rest of the body has no neck. Immediately after the fatal blow the disconnected neck muscles retract leaving no neck behind. All the severed heads displayed by the designer in charge of severed heads had very prominent necks.  But after all, what’s in a neck?

Just for fun cogitate about Turandot’s riddles. She’s been posing them, see above, for three seasons. She is, I suppose, just a silly teenager. Further suppose that no one gets her riddles right. Years go by. Her youth fades. Instead of princes she starts getting butchers,  then lawyers, then deans, then nobody. There she sits alone with her riddles and her wrinkles. Lucky for her Calaf got the right answers. Can you imagine what kind of a couple they make? And they lived dysfunctionally ever after.

Zeffirelli’s opulent Puccini contrasted sharply with Luc Bondy’s barbershop mounting of Tosca which opened the broadcast season and which replaced Zeffirelli’s super spectacular staging of the Puccini thriller. No question which I prefer. Decide for yourself.

Finally, I can’t resist revisiting the pronunciation wars. Racette was dotting the final t in Turandot like a gatling gun – dot.com, dot.org, dot.dead. They were so forceful that they may have been the cause of the transmission difficulties that affected the telecast. Marcello Giordani, on the other hand, was having none of it – Turandooooooooooooooo. His tongue wasn’t within a mile of the roof of his mouth. The Mandarin also ignored the final t. I couldn’t hear it articulated by Ping, Pang, or Pong either. Turandot only says her name once. I thought I heard a hint of a t from Guleghina. But it was just a whiff, a shadow, a whisper, a soupçon, a dribble, a suggestion, a trace, a touch, a tad,  a teensie-weensie tiny tiny t.

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