It is a little-known fact that when Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote in Dialektik der Aufklärung that “amusement always means putting things out of mind, forgetting suffering, even when it is on display… at its root is powerlessness,” they were thinking of Franco Zeffirelli’s Met Opera production of Turandot. Despite it being performed year in and year out, this Friday was the first time I have seen this ridiculously outsized spectacle, because I try to avoid things that I know will make me angry, afraid that I will be compelled to unleash the blogging equivalent of the Incredible Hulk. But on Friday to the Met I went, and it was just about as bad as I feared, if not worse.
Turandot’s China, as composed by Puccini, is a vast, cold machine, its people an anonymous mob and its princess ice. But who should appear but quasi-European Calàf, who manages to, like Don José, conquer the resistant feminine Other. (Think of Liù as Turandot’s Micaëla.) Zeffirelli’s vast stage machines, the sets massive and gratuitously detailed and crowded with scurrying extras, leave little space for human feeling and individuals. Perhaps Turandot’s realm is actually his ultimate achievement as a director. It fits the music in a way where his Traviata was merely ridiculous, but it exacerbates the problems of the score.
That Viennese Turandot where all the characters were insects was onto something–if you hang onto the Chinese setting, it’s hard to do so in a way that doesn’t feature a) awful cultural appropriation and b) the direct portrayal of the Chinese as soulless savages. If you don’t see what’s wrong with this I recommend you read this. And Zeffirelli’s kitsch is dire in this regard. I might add that the last scene, where Calàf comes pretty close to raping Turandot before she decides she wants it at the last second, makes me really unhappy. While I find ending the opera with Liù’s death (the point where Puccini’s score ends) overly abrupt, maybe it has more going for it than I realized when I saw that version in Munich last summer (that production that is not the last word in self-consciousness but in comparison to this one is positively enlightened).
Anyway, Zeffirelli’s theme park visuals still get applause, particularly the epic Act 2 set, but this is the sort of opera that I feel like I always need to apologize for: visuals that beat the viewer into submission, casual racism, and careless treatment of the characters and story. The Emperor and Turandot begin Act 2 so far upstage that they are rendered nearly inaudible, and it’s often hard to pick the leading characters out of the masses onstage. It has, when combined with the vivid banging of the score, an undeniable potency, but it’s not something I want anything to do with. The audience seemed to think they had gotten their money’s worth, but if you want to see something artistic I recommend redirecting yourself to Un ballo in maschera.
Musically this production was satisfactory, and in that respect I enjoyed it, though I wish the sets had not swallowed the singers’ voices as well as their presences. Conductor Dan Ettinger knows his Turandot–he conducted the Munich performance I saw last summer as well–and except for a few snafus with the chorus (and an unfortunate trumpet crack right before “Straniero, ascolta,”) the orchestra was strong. The vocal highlight was debuting soprano Janai Brugger as Liù. Granted, it’s easy for Liù to steal Turandot, but Brugger’s crystalline yet full lyric soprano was beautifully controlled and expressive, portraying a rare moment of vulnerability in this tank of a performance. Less happy was Marcello Giordani as Calàf. This incredibly uneven singer had a night that was more bad than good. While some high notes still can ring out with power and squillo, all but the top few notes are sour and hollow, and even a few notes sounded like yelps. As Turandot, Iréne Theorin had sufficient power (though the set wasn’t helping her), but I found this less impressive than her Brünnhilde last summer. Her vibrato seemed unwieldy and her tone often turned shrill. But she is a lovely actress in a role that is usually just stood through. James Morris was a horribly wobbly Timur, Dwayne Croft was a fine Ping but Tony Stevenson and Eduardo Valdes were unfortunately less than audible as Pang and Pong, as was Bernard Fitch as the Emperor. Ryan Speedo Green made an impressive Met debut in the small role of the Mandarin, a bass-baritone ringing out through the crowds.
But you’d have to pay me to go see this again.