NEW YORK, NY.-
By opening its season a few weeks ago with Terence Blanchards Fire Shut Up in My Bones, the first work by a Black composer in its history, the Metropolitan Opera was attempting to engage with the present moment, in all its roiling complexities.
But on Tuesday the old Met, a company of grand tradition and unabashed spectacle, returned with a revival of Puccinis Turandot in Franco Zeffirellis glittering, gaudy, opulent, tacky and overwhelmingly popular 1987 production.
When this production was last mounted, in the fall of 2019, the lead roles of Turandot, an icy Chinese princess, and Calāf, the prince who seeks to win her love, were sung splendidly by soprano Christine Goerke and tenor Yusif Eyvazov. Assuming these demanding parts again Tuesday, they were even better.
But 2019 seems a long time ago. Much has changed since the pandemic forced the closure of cultural institutions around the world, including a wave of anti-Asian hostility that has compelled the arts to reexamine lingering prejudices and racist stereotypes. For some, Turandot not just Zeffirellis extravagant production, but the opera itself, set in the fantastical Peking of legend is an example of the problem. As much as I love the music, and as often as Ive seen (or put up with) this staging, it was impossible not to view it this time in this context.
To hear Puccinis score as rife with awkward evocations of Asian exotica and stereotypes is, to me, unfair. The story of Turandot, which is based on a fairy tale by 18th-century Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi, prodded Puccini, who had already absorbed elements of Asian music, to explore those sources even further. In the score, he incorporates several Chinese melodies. Like Debussy, who had an epiphany when he attended an 1889 exposition of Asian arts and culture in Paris, Puccini was genuinely excited by Chinese culture. He doesnt just drop these tunes into this score, but blends them with nuance and respect into his own Italianate, 20th-century harmonic language.
Still, the characters can come off as cliched or worse. And its too easy to dismiss concerns by saying the opera is just a fairy tale or that Zeffirellis production is just an over-the-top costume epic that shouldnt be taken too seriously.
Perhaps the most problematic characters at least in Zeffirellis interpretation are the trio of royal ministers with names that can make todays audiences cringe: Ping, Pang and Pong (in this revival, Hyung Yun, Tony Stevenson and Eric Ferring). True to Gozzi, Puccini was evoking stock types out of commedia dellarte. As the ministers bicker, chatter and fret over the deadly riddles Turandot puts her suitors through, he gives the three ministers much bustling, comedic music to sing. Yet the orchestra keeps needling the vocal lines with jabbing dissonances and modernist harmonic twists, so a sober subtext comes through.
And there are stretches when the ministers pine for their homes in the country and yearn for the old times that are some of the most beguiling music in the opera. These ravishing episodes are lush with Impressionist-like harmonic writing and hazy colorings. (You almost hear Puccini saying, Take that, Debussy!) The issue is less the score than the production: The Met could rid Zeffirellis staging of the mincing, fan-waving antics, allowing the ministers to appear as the sage observers they are.
Goerke and Eyvazov sang so well that I was swept up in Puccinis music during their scenes, despite the silvery extravagance of the imperial palace, here so bright you almost squint. Goerke sang the daunting aria In questa reggia with steely sound and thrilling intensity, and, later, soared impressively over the full chorus and orchestra. Eyvazov, an athletic-looking Calāf, had beefy sound and clarion top notes, getting a big ovation for his Nessun dorma.
Soprano Gabriella Reyes, her voice radiant and rich in vibrato, was an uncommonly strong Lių, the servant in love with Calāf; Timur, Calāfs father, was stalwart bass-baritone James Morris, appearing 50 years after his Met debut. The superb Met chorus has Puccinis score and Zeffirellis staging down pat; the singing in the big ensemble scenes was glorious. Conductor Marco Armiliato led a sure-paced and colorful performance.
But what is the Met to do with this production, which seems increasingly anachronistic? Peter Gelb, the companys general manager, got burned in 2009 when he replaced Zeffirellis grandly realistic production of Tosca with a sparer, grimmer staging that was booed at its premiere and, in time, cast aside. This Turandot has drawn audiences for decades. But the time may have come for a more probing and restrained take on what is for me and many others Puccinis great final opera.
Through Nov. 16 (and in the spring with a different cast) at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center; 212-362-6000; metopera.org.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times