Cher Public

Enigma variation

Many of the whinier opera fans among us live to demand “Why isn’t X singing at the Met?” and for the past decade soprano Jennifer Wilson has regularly been the subject of such plaints. But on Thursday evening Wilson “finally” made a belated, disappointing Met debut as Turandot opposite the rather more satisfactory Calaf of another newbie—Yusif Eyvazov—who bowed at last Saturday’s matinee. 

Present-day financial exigencies have ordained that many houses schedule long runs of the ever-popular “bread-and-butter” operas, so this season Met audiences will see 13 performances of Tosca, 15 of both La Bohème and Rigoletto, and a whopping 16 of the ever-popular Franco Zeffirelli production of Turandot. If nothing else, these give audiences the chance to compare, say, four Toscas and four Scarpias.

Having attended the first with Christine Goerke and Marcelo Álvarez, I had wondered how Turandot would be holding up for the tenth. Paolo Carignani’s forces had a good night with the full-throated chorus particularly inspired in its ravishing anticipation of the rising moon in Act I. The antic Ping, Pang and Pong of Dwayne Croft, Tony Stevenson and Eduardo Valdes were a bit more ragged this time around but David Crawford, the potent new Mandarin, resounded.

Appearing at the Met for the first time in nearly six years, Hao Jiang Tian as a moving Timur was a definite improvement over the gritty James Morris, while the returning Hibla Gerzmava repeated her clarion Liù. Her flamboyant suicide lacked the hoped-for pathos but she sang with such plush beauty and stirring melodramatic flair that she won the evening’s biggest applause at the curtain calls.

Her nemesis unfortunately proved less compelling. Since her headline-grabbing jump-in for an ailing Jane Eaglen in Götterdammerung at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2005 (I’ve heard an in-house tape of it and she was spectacular), Wilson has been one of the more satisfying Wagnerians before the public. Her Brünnhilde in the La Fura dels Baus Ring from Valencia was so widely admired that Deborah Voigt’s sad misfire in the Robert Lepage production brought forth a volley of cries for Wilson to come to the Met. But a Wagner debut was not forthcoming; instead a single Turandot at the end of this fall’s run was scheduled.

As with many dramatic sopranos, the Puccini antiheroine has been a significant role for Wilson; it was the opera in which she made her stage debut in 2002 and she debuted with it at both Covent Garden and the Bavarian State Opera, the latter in a new production. Although her leading man most likely disqualifies it from serious attention from Turandot fans, her contribution to the new Decca recording has received a number of laudatory comments.

However, her “In questa reggia” on Thursday sounded unhappily small and tentative. Although she rose to taunt Calaf with imperious fierceness, the voice lacked the fire and commanding power one wants. While she could throw her head back and trumpet out the expected ringing high notes, the crucial middle was meek, the chest voice vestigial.

Her whitish soprano lacked the individuality to arrest one’s ear and her bland use of the text failed to illumine this knotty character. While she acted dutifully the icy princess, one felt little of the Turandot’s pain or fury. The transformative journey from virago to loving paramour lacked the emotional complexity that Goerke had brought to it, particularly in “Del primo pianto,” and she displayed little chemistry with her ardent, earthy Unknown Prince.

Even those who relish the round-robin of changing casts must acknowledge that replacements get no stage or orchestral rehearsal, and this soprano may have also been at less than her current best. However, one wondered if perhaps her first Met appearance had come a bit late for Wilson who is now nearly 50. (Yet another important debut awaits her in 2016 at Bayreuth in the surprising role of Sieglinde.)

Although the opportunity to finally see Wilson was the reason some came, others were curious to hear Eyvazov, a virtual unknown before Riccardo Muti chose him to be Des Grieux when he conducted Manon Lescaut in Rome in 2013. Next month the tenor will marry his Manon with whom he now often sings—that she is Anna Netrebko has thrust Eyvazov into an international prominence that might be eyed with suspicion. His fiancée missed his Met debut on Saturday but she was enthusiastically in attendance across the aisle from me on Thursday.

Did this Calaf belong on the stage or the Met stage or was it a grand gesture by the Met to please its leading soprano? Despite having to sing his pair of performances with two different Turandots and despite having appeared with Netrebko in Vienna the night after his debut (!!), Eyvazov performed credibly. While his dark, often throaty tenor shows few signs of beauty, it can be quite exciting. His rapid vibrato cuts like a knife and he hurled out high notes with abandon all evening.

The sound occasionally threatened to become occluded and while he didn’t display much imagination or nuance, he did endeavor to vary his dynamics, singing softly more often than some other Calafs. Rocking a man-bun, Eyvazov didn’t appear to be much of a stage animal, but he held his own after a rocky beginning which featured several “deer-in-the-headlights” moments. While one wouldn’t want to hear him in something like La Bohème, he may prove useful, particularly with more rehearsal and more careful musical and dramatic preparation, in many verismo roles.

Six more performances of Turandot arrive in January featuring the long-awaited Met return of Nina Stemme along with the first Met Liù of Anita Hartig, the highly promising Alexander Tsymbalyuk as Timur and, alas, Marco Berti as Calaf.