THE METS TURANDOT: THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE

The first time Turandot played at the Metropolitan Opera was on November 16, 1926.  J.W. Henderson of the New York Sun observed that “this is an opera in which the eye and the ear must be equally absorbed.” The great Viennese architect and designer Joseph Urban had provided the scenery. He was a pioneer of the American Art Deco style. Florida’s Mar-a-Lago is the prime remaining example of his work. His daughter, Gretel Urban Thurlow. provided the costume design.

The legendary, flamboyantly impulsive, Moravian soprano Maria Jeritza, the Met’s reigning diva since the retirement of Geraldine Farrar, sang the title role of the Chinese princess, while the “virile” Roman lyric  tenor Giacomo Lauri-Volpi sang Calaf, the exiled prince of Tartary.  The presence of Ms. Jeritza in the title role ignited an international debate as to whom Puccini had dedicated his last opera.  Ms. Jeritza claimed the opera was for her. On the other hand, the Turandot of the La Scala debut, Rosa Raisa, thought otherwise.

In 1961 another  production of Turandot inspired a young stage carpenter named Joseph Volpe toward  a career which would eventually lead to his role as Director of the Metropolitan Opera. Mr. Volpe remembers:

One day, I was onstage repairing a set during a closed rehearsal of Turandot. The cast and orchestra had just started the trial scene in Act 2, during which the Chinese princess reveals her terrible secret (“In questa reggia”) On this occasion, the Chi­nese princess was a soprano named Birgit Nilsson.

I was hammering away when Charlie came over and said, “Hey, Joe, you’re mak­ing too much noise!”

I said, “No one’s going to hear me with that woman singing.”

But then I started tapping a little more softly and began to listen. When “In questa reggia” is sung well—and who ever sang it better than Nilsson?—it weaves a spell that puts everyone onstage under the princess’s power, including her suitor, Calaf, who was being sung by a tenor named Franco Corelli.

I couldn’t see them, but I could hear them, and I found myself so drawn to their voices that I called over to Charlie, “Is it okay if I go out and listen?”

“Sure”, he said, “I’ll come with you.”

The house lights were off, and except for the director and his assistants, the conductor, the orchestra, and the hundred or so people onstage, the auditorium was empty. Charlie and I took seats about ten rows back.

The music coming out of the orchestra pit reminded me of colored smoke, but it was nothing compared to what Nilsson and Corelli were producing with their vocal cords.

“Where are the loudspeakers?” I whispered to Charlie.

Charlie said, “This is the Metropolitan Opera, Joe. We don’t use speakers.”

I said, “There’s more to this opera stuff than building scenery.”

Charlie nodded.[i

On March 12,1987 Joseph Volpe presented Franco Zeffirelli’s presented a visually stunning Turandot, a production rivaling  that of the Urbans. The Hungarian soprano Eva Marton, facile as either a Wagnerian or an Italian heroine, sang the title role with what the New York Post’s Robert Kimball called “volcanic tones”, while Placido Domingo, called “iron-lunged” by the Post’s Kimball,  sang Calaf. John W. Freeman of the Opera News noted the production’s “plethora of detail that confounded the senses.”

Thirty-two years later, Zeffirelli’s classic staging has returned to the Met stage.

The opera’s libretto, written by Puccini’s friend Renato Simoni, comes from an 18th century dramatic fairy tale by the Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi. The work is not a flawed verismo look at the social conditions of China.

Turandot would prove to be the maestro’s final opera. In fact, the ailing maestro died before completing it, leaving the composition of the work’s resolution to a friend, Franco Alfano.  Alfano composed the final duet between Calaf and Turandot, as well as the opera’s concluding choral moments. He used Puccini’s outlines throughout the process.

Chicago’s legendary soprano Rosa Raisa would debut Turandot, while the Spaniard Miguel Fleta, the artist considered by Puccini to be the ideal tenor for his works, introduced Calaf to the world. Milan’s Corriere della Sera reported on Raisa’s triumphant performance:

Rosa Raisa had the difficult task awaiting her on the stage. Although the role contained many conflicting emotions not once did she shrink from the dramatic demands placed on her nor did she overact. With the intelligence so typical of her she solved the problems of the role.”[ii]

On April 25, 1926,opening night at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, conductor Arturo Toscanini stopped the action as Liu’s funeral cortege exited the stage.

“The music gives a final sob, a slight lament…Then, nothing more: silence. The cortege has disappeared; on the stage, Calaf and Princess Turandot freeze into an appearance of sorrow; the orchestra stops. And then we see Toscanini turn to the audience: he remains undecided for a moment, as if unable to conquer the emotion that is gripping him, then, in a strangled voice, he says, ‘Here ends the opera, left incomplete by the Maestro at his death.’ The audience is undecided for a moment. People knew that the first performance would be interrupted here, but all of a sudden they are thrown off by the exceptional scene and by the fact that Toscanini personally carried out this act. Then the curtain slowly closes. Toscanini descends [from the podium] and disappears, and then a cry rises out of the silence in the hall: “Viva Puccini!” Then everyone rises. And the cry is repeated, and the singers are called before the curtain five times, and Toscanini is acclaimed in the name of the Maestro who died and who has returned to us.”[iii]

Toscanini refused to play beyond Puccini’s final notes. As a result, Alfano’s contribution was not heard until the second performance. Toscanini conducted only the first three performances , and never conducted Turandot again , even though the opera had been dedicated to him.

Turandot is also Puccini’s most autobiographical work. While composing the piece, Puccini’s wife Elvira went mad with jealousy concerning Puccini and their  young ,innocent village maid, Doria Manfredi. The ravings of Madame Puccini drove the young girl to commit suicide by ingesting  corrosive sublimate, a mercuric chloride. The event found an eerie poignant echo as the young and devoted servant Liu kills herself to spare her master, Calaf, from further pain.

The wooing of Princess Turandot, like the wooing of Shakespeare’s Portia, requires the suitor to successfully answer a few riddles. Calaf, the princess’s latest suitor, must answer three, the seemingly magical number in all things dramatic.

Sometimes called “trebling”, the “Rule of Three” is a time-tested pattern used in stories and jokes. Part of the story is told three times, with minor variations. The first two instances build tension, while the third releases it by incorporating a twist. This pattern is especially common in storytelling. (The third of three brothers usually succeeds after his older siblings have each failed. Or a protagonist is given three tests and receives the prize after the third.) It’s rare to find a folktale that does not incorporate the Rule of Three in some form. The form is followed by both Gozzi and Puccini:

1.”What is born each night and dies at dawn?” Turandot seeks the answer, “hope.”

2.”What flickers red and warm like a flame, yet is not fire?” The answer is “blood.”

3.”What is like ice yet burns?” The answer is “Turandot.”

The riddle suggests  that the princess is cold to men. In fact, she is a cruel ruler. Turandot has rejected love because of a past wrong. At the same time, she burns with pent up passion; she is a woman filled with  avenging anger. She has warm blood flowing through her veins.

Calaf’’s quest occurs amid the the heads of the unsuccessful suitors. He cannot escape the reminders of the  life-and-death stakes the princess demands. When he surprisingly succeeds, Calaf confounds everyone by turning the tables on Turandot. He offers  her his head if she can guess his name. Turandot guesses his name to be “Love. In love,  she allows Calaf to live. Lo and behold, the couple has “fallen into love“,and ends happily ever after.

The current Met Turandot with American dramatic soprano Christine Goerke as Turandot and Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazov as Calaf. This duo was simply dynamic. I had seen Ms. Goerke as Cassandra in the 2016 production of Les Troyens at Chicago’s Lyric Opera and as Brunhilde last year in the Met’s Walkure and was dazzled each time. Nothing prepared me for her Turandot. Her ice princess persona features stiff and formal gestures abstracted from the classical Chinese theater repertoire. As she “melts” into a sentient human being, her gestures relax and become more human and vulnerable. As for her characterization, she brilliantly realizes that the anger of revenge is but one of a three part emotional complex. She finds wonderful opportunities to highlight Turandot’s fear and sadness in her performance, making it one of the most rounded embodiments of that troublesome character you are apt to see.

Only in the La Scala Andrea Chenier had I seen Mr. Eyvazov on stage. His Calaf is revelatory in its interpretation. Playing the character as resigned to do his duty, the tenor eschews any braggadocio, instead he focuses on doing his duty. After all, the fate of China depends on the Princess finding a mate to carry on the dynastic line. Once he solved the riddles,  he beams at Turandot with pure love pouring from his eyes, beginning the process of her transformation. The scene between Turandot and Calaf in which she becomes his “blushing bride” is wonderfully realized by revival director Paula Suozzi. Whatever troubles the scene had prosed before are swept away in a psychologically believable  movement of character. Ms. Suozzi, whose work on the 2017 Lyric opera’s restaging of Robert Carsen’s Eugene Onegin with Anna Maria Martinez, first demonstrated to me Ms. Suozzi’s great gift. She is able, within the original director’s vision and framework, to freshen up the characterizations, and sharpen the movements. In each case, the revitalized opera becomes brand new and archival at the same time. A stunning trick, made to look easy.

“Nessum Dorma.” Turandot lives or dies by the tenor’s singing of the world’s most famous aria. Mr. Eyvazov’s approach is fresh. His Calaf is eager to get on with things, and the aria has a vibrant drive to it. It is no copy of anyone else’s. In fact, he makes the most difficult aria seem easy. It is a beautiful tribute to the tenor’s mentor, Luciano Pavarotti, whose cheering led the celestial crowd, while the in-house audience bravoed itself hoarse.

Liu is Puccini’s original addition to Gozzi’s work. She usually draws most of the emotion in a production, and as suing by  Eleonora Buratto, the role was powerfully heart-tugging. I had last seen Ms. Burato as Michaela in Rob Ashford’s 2017 Carmen at Chicago’s Lyric Opera. With Liu , Ms. Buratto seems to have cornered the market on the “girl who didn’t get her man.” Teamed with the legendary  James Morris’ Timor, the couple  rivets the audience’s attention.

From this season’s Metropolitan Opera: the finest Turandot you are likely to see.

[i] Joseph Volpe. The Toughest Show on Earth. My Rise and reign at the Metropolitan Opera. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.

[ii] Mintzer, Charles. Rosa Raisa. The Biography of a Diva with Selections from her memoires. Boston: Northeastern University press, 2001), p.134.

[iii] Reported in the Corriere, quoted in Harvey Sachs, Toscanini. Musician of Conscience. New York: Livright Publishing Corporation, 2017.

me Turandot played at the Metropolitan Opera was on November 16, 1926.  J.W. Henderson of the New York Sun observed that “this is an opera in which the eye and the ear must be equally absorbed.” The great Viennese architect and designer Joseph Urban had provided the scenery. He was a pioneer of the American Art Deco style. Florida’s Mar-a-Lago is the prime remaining example of his work. His daughter, Gretel Urban Thurlow. provided the costume design.

The legendary, flamboyantly impulsive, Moravian soprano Maria Jeritza, the Met’s reigning diva since the retirement of Geraldine Farrar, sang the title role of the Chinese princess, while the “virile” Roman lyric  tenor Giacomo Lauri-Volpi sang Calaf, the exiled prince of Tartary.  The presence of Ms. Jeritza in the title role ignited an international debate as to whom Puccini had dedicated his last opera.  Ms. Jeritza claimed the opera was for her. On the other hand, the Turandot of the La Scala debut, Rosa Raisa, thought otherwise.

In 1961 another  production of Turandot inspired a young stage carpenter named Joseph Volpe toward  a career which would eventually lead to his role as Director of the Metropolitan Opera. Mr. Volpe remembers:

One day, I was onstage repairing a set during a closed rehearsal of Turandot. The cast and orchestra had just started the trial scene in Act 2, during which the Chinese princess reveals her terrible secret (“In questa reggia”) On this occasion, the Chi­nese princess was a soprano named Birgit Nilsson.

I was hammering away when Charlie came over and said, “Hey, Joe, you’re mak­ing too much noise!”

I said, “No one’s going to hear me with that woman singing.”

But then I started tapping a little more softly and began to listen. When “In questa reggia” is sung well—and who ever sang it better than Nilsson?—it weaves a spell that puts everyone onstage under the princess’s power, including her suitor, Calaf, who was being sung by a tenor named Franco Corelli.

I couldn’t see them, but I could hear them, and I found myself so drawn to their voices that I called over to Charlie, “Is it okay if I go out and listen?”

“Sure”, he said, “I’ll come with you.”

The house lights were off, and except for the director and his assistants, the conductor, the orchestra, and the hundred or so people onstage, the auditorium was empty. Charlie and I took seats about ten rows back.

The music coming out of the orchestra pit reminded me of colored smoke, but it was nothing compared to what Nilsson and Corelli were producing with their vocal cords.

“Where are the loudspeakers?” I whispered to Charlie.

Charlie said, “This is the Metropolitan Opera, Joe. We don’t use speakers.”

I said, “There’s more to this opera stuff than building scenery.”

Charlie nodded.[i

On March 12,1987 Joseph Volpe presented Franco Zeffirelli’s presented a visually stunning Turandot, a production rivaling  that of the Urbans. The Hungarian soprano Eva Marton, facile as either a Wagnerian or an Italian heroine, sang the title role with what the New York Post’s Robert Kimball called “volcanic tones”, while Placido Domingo, called “iron-lunged” by the Post’s Kimball,  sang Calaf. John W. Freeman of the Opera News noted the production’s “plethora of detail that confounded the senses.”

Thirty-two years later, Zeffirelli’s classic staging has returned to the Met stage.

The opera’s libretto, written by Puccini’s friend Renato Simoni, comes from an 18th century dramatic fairy tale by the Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi. The work is not a flawed verismo look at the social conditions of China.

Turandot would prove to be the maestro’s final opera. In fact, the ailing maestro died before completing it, leaving the composition of the work’s resolution to a friend, Franco Alfano.  Alfano composed the final duet between Calaf and Turandot, as well as the opera’s concluding choral moments. He used Puccini’s outlines throughout the process.

Chicago’s legendary soprano Rosa Raisa would debut Turandot, while the Spaniard Miguel Fleta, the artist considered by Puccini to be the ideal tenor for his works, introduced Calaf to the world. Milan’s Corriere della Sera reported on Raisa’s triumphant performance:

Rosa Raisa had the difficult task awaiting her on the stage. Although the role contained many conflicting emotions not once did she shrink from the dramatic demands placed on her nor did she overact. With the intelligence so typical of her she solved the problems of the role.”[ii]

On April 25, 1926,opening night at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, conductor Arturo Toscanini stopped the action as Liu’s funeral cortege exited the stage.

“The music gives a final sob, a slight lament…Then, nothing more: silence. The cortege has disappeared; on the stage, Calaf and Princess Turandot freeze into an appearance of sorrow; the orchestra stops. And then we see Toscanini turn to the audience: he remains undecided for a moment, as if unable to conquer the emotion that is gripping him, then, in a strangled voice, he says, ‘Here ends the opera, left incomplete by the Maestro at his death.’ The audience is undecided for a moment. People knew that the first performance would be interrupted here, but all of a sudden they are thrown off by the exceptional scene and by the fact that Toscanini personally carried out this act. Then the curtain slowly closes. Toscanini descends [from the podium] and disappears, and then a cry rises out of the silence in the hall: “Viva Puccini!” Then everyone rises. And the cry is repeated, and the singers are called before the curtain five times, and Toscanini is acclaimed in the name of the Maestro who died and who has returned to us.”[iii]

Toscanini refused to play beyond Puccini’s final notes. As a result, Alfano’s contribution was not heard until the second performance. Toscanini conducted only the first three performances , and never conducted Turandot again , even though the opera had been dedicated to him.

Turandot is also Puccini’s most autobiographical work. While composing the piece, Puccini’s wife Elvira went mad with jealousy concerning Puccini and their  young ,innocent village maid, Doria Manfredi. The ravings of Madame Puccini drove the young girl to cimmit suicide by ingesting  corrosive sublimate, a mercuric chloride. The event found an eerie poignant echo as the young and devoted servant Liu kills herself to spare her master, Calaf, from further pain.

The wooing of Princess Turandot, like the wooing of Shakespeare’s Portia, requires the suitor to successfully answer a few riddles. Calaf, the princess’s latest suitor, must answer three, the seemingly magical number in all things dramatic.

Sometimes called “trebling”, the “Rule of Three” is a time-tested pattern used in stories and jokes. Part of the story is told three times, with minor variations. The first two instances build tension, while the third releases it by incorporating a twist. This pattern is especially common in storytelling. (The third of three brothers usually succeeds after his older siblings have each failed. Or a protagonist is given three tests and receives the prize after the third.) It’s rare to find a folktale that does not incorporate the Rule of Three in some form. The form is followed by both Gozzi and Puccini:

1.”What is born each night and dies at dawn?” Turandot seeks the answer, “hope.”

  1. “What flickers red and warm like a flame, yet is not fire?” The answer is “blood.”
  2. “What is like ice yet burns?” The answer is “Turandot.”

The riddle suggests  that the princess is cold to men. In fact, she is a cruel ruler. Turandot has rejected love because of a past wrong. At the same time, she burns with pent up passion; she is a woman filled with  avenging anger. She has warm blood flowing through her veins.

Calaf’’s quest occurs amid the the heads of the unsuccessful suitors. He cannot escape the reminders of the  life-and-death stakes the princess demands. When he surprisingly succeeds, Calaf confounds everyone by turning the tables on Turandot. He offers  her his head if she can guess his name. Turandot guesses his name to be “Love. In love,  she allows Calaf to live. Lo and behold, the couple has “fallen into love“,and end happily ever after.

The current Met Turandot with American dramatic soprano Christine Goerke as Turandot and Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazov as Calaf. This duo was simply dynamic. I had seen Ms. Goerke as Cassandra in the 2016 production of Les Troyens at Chicago’s Lyric Opera and as Brunhilde last year in the Met’s Walkure and was dazzled each time. Nothing prepared me for her Turandot. Her ice princess persona features stiff and formal gestures abstracted from the classical Chines theater repertoire. As she “melts” into a sentient human being, her gestures relax and become more human and vulnerable. As for her characterization, she brilliantly realizes that the anger of revenge is but one of a three part emotional complex. She finds wonderful opportunities to highlight Turandot’s fear and sadness in her performance, making it one of the most rounded embodiments of that troublesome character you are apt to see.

Only in the La Scala Andrea Chenier had I seen Mr. Eyvazov on stage. His Calaf is revelatory in its interpretation. Playing the character as resigned to do his duty, the tenor eschews any braggadocio, instead he focuses on doing his duty. After all, the fate of China depends on the Princess finding a mate to carry on the dynastic line. Once he solved the riddles,  he beams at Turandot with pure love pouring from his eyes, beginning the process of her transformation. The scene between Turandot and Calaf in which she becomes his “blushing bride” is wonderfully realized by revival director Paula Suozzi. Whatever troubles the scene had prosed before are swept away in a p[psychologically believable  movement of character. Ms. Suozzi, whose work on the 2017 Lyric opera’s restaging of Robert Carsen’s Eugene Onegin with Anna Maria Martinez first demonstrated to me Ms. Suozzi’s great gift. She is able, within the original director’s vision and framework, to freshen up the characterizations, and sharpen the movements. In each case, the revitalized opera becomes  both brand new and archival at the same time. A stunning trick, made to look easy.

“Nessum Dorma.” Turandot lives or dies by the tenor’s singing of the world’s most famous aria. Mr. Eyvazov’s approach is fresh. His Calaf is eager to get on with things, and the aria has a vibrant drive to it. It is no copy of anyone else’s. In fact, he makes the most difficult aria seem easy. It is a beautiful tribute to the tenor’s mentor, Luciano Pavarotti, whose cheering led the celestial crowd, while the in-house audience bravoed itself hoarse.

Liu is Puccini’s original addition to Gozzi’s work. She usually draws most of the emotion in a production, and as suing by  Eleonora Buratto, the role was powerfully heart-tugging. I had last seen Ms. Burato as Michaela in Rob Ashford’s 2017 Carmen at Chicago’s Lyric Opera. With Liu Ms. Buratto seems to have cornered the market on the “girl who didn’t get her man.” Teamed with the legendary  James Morris’ Timor, the couple  rivets the audience’s attention.

From this season’s Metropolitan Opera: the finest Turandot you are likely to see.

[1] Joseph Volpe. The Toughest Show on Earth. My Rise and reign at the Metropolitan Opera. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.

[1] Mintzer, Charles. Rosa Raisa. The Biography of a Diva with Selections from her Memoires. Boston: Northeastern University press, 2001), p.134.

[1] Reported in the Corriere, quoted in Harvey Sachs, Toscanini. Musician of Conscience. New York: Livright Publishing Corporation, 2017.

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