Few operas celebrate the conquest of love with as much triumphal joy as Turandot, Puccini’s stirring last work, and the current Met revival of its spectacular Zeffirelli production features a solid cast led by Oksana Dyka and Aleksandrs Antonenko, and on Tuesday night honored James Morris on his 1,000th performance with the company.
Dyka, in the title role of the Chinese princess, and Antonenko, as Calaf, the stranger who risks his life for her, each score high marks for their big arias and are convincing in their final duet. Maria Agresta, an Italian soprano, is admirable as the slave-girl Liu. But the biggest accolades Tuesday night came at the end of the first act and went to Morris, who sang the role of Timur for his millennial performance at the Met.
Morris, a bass-baritone from Baltimore, made his Met debut in 1971 as the King in Aida, and in the intervening 46 years he has sung more than 60 roles, especially famous for his Wotan in Wagner’s Ring cycle and Sachs in Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg but also starring in operas by Verdi, Gounod, and Mozart, among others.
Peter Gelb, the Met General Manager, brought Morris out for a special curtain call at the end of the opening act, drawing a cascade of “bravos” from an admiring Met audience and applause from the Met Chorus onstage and the Orchestra in the pit. Presenting him with a special gift, Gelb thanked Morris for “all you’ve done for the Met” over the decades.
“It is not what I’ve done for the Met, but what the Met has done for me,” Morris replied. The singer went on to thank “the greatest orchestra and chorus in the world,” as well as James Levine, who conducted him in so many roles over the years.
The Met Chorus and Orchestra are a major part of the success of this Turandot revival. Puccini composed soaring choruses for the opera – from the bloodthirsty mob clamoring for a beheading at the start to the rousing finales that end each act – and the Met Chorus under Donald Palumbo can produce chill-bumps. The Orchestra, under Carlo Rizzi for these performances, brings out the sweep of Puccini’s score from the overture to the final chords.
Puccini worked and fretted over Turandot for years, writing his librettists at one point “I think of Turandot hour by hour, minute by minute.” He was still working on the ending when in the fall of 1924 he went to Brussels for treatment for throat cancer. Although the treatment appeared to be successful he had a heart attack and died a few weeks later, the opera unfinished.
Toscanini, who conducted the opera’s premiere at La Scala, gave the task of completing it to Franco Alfano, who composed the last scene from Puccini’s notes. The story is loosely taken from an 18th-century play by Carlo Gozzi about the frigid daughter of a Chinese emperor who demands that all suitors for her hand in marriage take a test of answering three riddles. If he fails, he is beheaded.
Calaf, newly arrived in Peking, finds his long-lost father and his faithful slave-girl among the rabble of a crowd waiting to watch the latest loser executed. But once he sees Turandot, he falls in love and decides to try his luck with the riddles.
Even when Calaf answers them, Turandot won’t give up. And Calaf, who took the test anonymously, is so certain his love will overcome Turandot’s opposition he promises her that if she can discover his name by dawn the next morning, he will give up his claim and submit to the executioner.
Franco Zeffirelli’s production for the Met is now 30 years old but no less awesome for its age. When the Imperial Palace emerges in the 2nd act, gloriously opulent in gold and silver, audiences still burst into applause. The Met has scheduled 15 performances of Turandot this season – eight more this fall and another five in the spring with a different cast and conductor.
The cast for the fall performances is commendable. Dyka, a Ukrainian soprano, sings with a rather icy edge to her voice at the outset, especially in the aria “In questa reggia,” but that grows warmer in the final act. Both she and Antonenko, a Latvian tenor, deliver on the ringing high notes, almost as though they are saving up for the vocal fireworks the score demands.
It must be daunting for a tenor tackling “Nessun dorma,” an aria that became a signature for Pavarotti, but Antonenko acquits himself admirably. Agresta, in only her third role at the Met, has a pleasant soprano that is comfortable in the upper register in the last act and a bit earthy in her opening aria “Signore, ascolte.”
And Morris, as he has been 999 other times at the Met, was excellent.