Metropolitan Opera Live HD Broadcasts 2019-20: Zeffirelli’s production of Puccini’s Turandot [Showing on October 12]

Written by: Alexander Campbell

The Classical Source once again brings you a handy guide to all ten of the Metropolitan Opera productions included in this season’s international broadcast series.

#1: Turandot

A scene from Act One of Franco Zeffirelli's production of Giacomo Puccini's Turandot
Photograph: Marty Sohl / Met Opera

Who wrote it?
Turandot was Puccini’s final opera, left unfinished when he died in 1924. The bulk was composed in full score with the last Act complete up until the death of the slave-girl Liù. Puccini left sketches for the final capitulation of Turandot to Calaf’s demands and his intention was that his fellow-composer Riccardo Zandonai should complete the opera. However, wrangling between Puccini’s heirs finally left Franco Alfano with the somewhat thankless task. His initial version was much criticised and nowadays his shorter revision is normally performed. There have been recent completions by others, notably Luciano Berio whose version strips away opulence.

Arturo Toscanini was the conductor of the first performances, at La Scala Milan in 1926. On the opening night he famously laid down his baton at the point in the score where Puccini’s had put down his pen. Turandot was an immediate hit.

Alexey Lavrov as Ping, Christine Goerke (background) as Turandot, and Eleonora Buratto as Liù in Franco Zeffirelli's production of Giacomo Puccini's Turandot
Photograph: Marty Sohl / Met Opera

What’s it about?
The opera is set in Peking in ancient times. Turandot is the daughter of the Emperor Altoum. He has instituted a decree that suitors for her hand must answer three riddles correctly to win her as their bride, though failure results in immediate execution. This is in revenge for the death of one of her ancestors, who was raped and murdered by a foreign prince. Despite the life-threatening cost of failure, many individuals have attempted the trial to win this beautiful if seemingly cruel and icy woman.

The opera focuses on the puzzles-trial of the disguised Calaf, on the run from the men who usurped his father Timur’s kingdom. Coincidentally, the blind Timur is also in Peking, incognito and supported by Liù who is secretly in love with Calaf. They witness the execution of the Prince of Persia who has failed the ordeal by riddle. Seeing Turandot as she orders the Prince’s execution, Calaf is bowled over by her beauty. Despite interventions from Liù and Timur he strikes the ceremonial gong – the signal to the populace and the ministers that the cycle of violence unleashed on every suitor is about to start again.
The ministers Ping, Pang and Pong attempt to dissuade Calaf in his attempt to claim Turandot: they long for a quiet life. They pleas are useless. Turandot sets the riddles. Calaf answers the first two correctly and she becomes increasingly anxious and agitated. Calaf also responds accurately to the third teaser. Turandot then begs him and the Emperor to release her from the bargain. Calaf sets her a test – she must find his name/identity before the dawn and he will gladly lose his life. A night of brutality ensues. As she was seen with Calaf, Liù is tortured at Turandot’s behest but commits suicide rather than disclose anything. At dawn Calaf and Turandot meet and spar. He heroically reveals his identity; she then announces a name to the populace…

James Morris as Timur in Franco Zeffirelli's production of Giacomo Puccini's Turandot
Photograph: Marty Sohl / Met Opera

Look out for…
The music has vibrancy and colour, tunes and choruses aplenty, and arias that are loved. Act One has a glorious choral highlight, and Liù has two wonderful arias In the final Act she tells Turandot how love gives her strength to defy torture and to seek death happily. Turandot herself does not sing until the second Act and then dominates as she tells of her ancestor and sets the challenges in a fiendishly taxing scene. Calaf’s big moment is of course ‘Nessun dorma’. Oddly, this is not the hymn to victory that some people think, for Calaf seems happy enough to ignore the state violence being unleashed on the citizens of Peking to ensure his own personal triumph. Comic relief, albeit somewhat black, is provided by Ping, Pang and Pong.

Who’s in it?
The traditional production, one of the most lavish and extravagant ever staged at the Met, was directed and designed by the late Franco Zeffirelli and has been in the house repertory for several decades.
Singing Turandot is Christina Goerke, now one of the great dramatic sopranos of our time and a compelling stage performer. Calaf is sung by Yusif Eyvazov. Eleonore Buratto takes the sympathetic role of Liù, and the veteran James Morris, once a leading Wotan, sings Timur. The conductor is Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

When’s it on?
If you are in New York City then the matinee is live at the Met itself. Otherwise it is broadcast to cinemas on October 12.

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