Two months after my last visit to this season’s sixteen-performance run of Puccini’s Turandot, I returned eager to witness the latest chapter in the sporadic Met career of Nina Stemme. Rising stars Anita Hartig and Alexander Tsymbalyuk also appeared in their roles for the first time at the Met, so Monday evening turned into a particularly engaging visit to imperial Peking.
Stemme, who made her Met debut in 2000 replacing Sharon Sweet as Senta, hadn’t appeared there since her only other engagement there in 2010, five performances of Ariadne auf Naxos, a substitution for her originally scheduled Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. She has been long acclaimed as one of the world’s reigning dramatic sopranos, particularly as Isolde and Brünnhilde. Her absence from the Met for most of those intervening sixteen years has been much remarked upon, especially when her appearances in San Francisco’s 2011 Ring were being ecstatically hailed just as Deborah Voigt’s in the Robert Lepage production were being widely deplored.
The Swedish soprano has three children and had made it a point when they were younger to stay close to home. But apparently the Met finally made her an offer she couldn’t refuse, and she will be making up for lost time by spending much of 2016 in New York. Turandot (the final one on January 30 is an international HD transmission) will be followed by the US premiere on April 14 of Patrice Chéreau’s Elektra (also planned for an HD transmission). And the Met’s 2016-2017 season reportedly opens with Stemme starring in a new Tristan und Isolde conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and directed by Mariusz Trelinski.
After the Turandots of other noted Wagnerians Christine Goerke and Jennifer Wilson, Stemme’s was the most vocally powerful of the three. From the opening of “In questa reggia” her dark soprano sounded huge, unfurling confidently with ferocious power. Her command of the role’s punishingly high tessitura meant the As and Bs rang out securely, though the occasional Cs were strained. My biggest quibble was her chronic propensity to drop consonants for high notes; in the finale when she at last proclaimed the Prince’s name as Love, it was “AH-OR” without the slightest trace of an “M.”
Unlike some “top-heavy” Turandots, Stemme’s middle and lower registers are plush and full and she used them to pungent effect. But unlike some other penetrating dramatic sopranos including her compatriot Birgit Nilsson, the effort to fill the Met showed, and one occasionally feared for what this heroic performance might have been costing her, although she still sounded fresh at the end.
For all her dominating vocal power, this was an uncommonly vulnerable princess. Calaf’s victory in answering the riddles clearly decimated her previously awe-inspiring self-possession. While Turandot’s “melting” at the Unknown Prince’s kiss can sometimes be dramatically risible, Stemme’s transformation from icy predator to unguarded woman was believably moving. By now concentrating exclusively on the most demanding dramatic repertoire, she may have sacrificed some degree of vocal beauty, but her haunting, inward “Del primo pianto” proved quite lovely.
That she was able to create such a multi-dimensional anti-heroine was even impressive as she was paired with the stony, blank Calaf of Marco Berti. My only previous experience with the Italian tenor was a 2012 dress rehearsal of Aida where he struggled to keep up with a blazing Liudmyla Monastyrska and Olga Borodina. He eventually lost his voice and canceled his scheduled performances.
Puccini proved kinder and for most of the evening he was content to belt out clarion high notes aimed at Family Circle Standing Room. While one was grateful for his dogged stamina and braying squillo, his blunt portrayal lacked poetry and warmth, although he occasionally leavened the constant forte with an occasional piano. Most of “Nessun dorma” found him rushing ahead of the beat; although he did settle down, his lumpy rendition was the low point of the evening, and the large, unimpressed audience declined to applaud the opera’s hit-tune.
Both Marcelo Álvarez and Yusif Eyvasov convincingly combined Calaf’s ambitions to ascend to the throne with his ardor for the elusive princess, but Berti radiated just glum determination. And who knew if he felt any allegiance toward his blind father or gratitude for Liù’s devotion and sacrifice?
The short role of the selfless slave-girl is a gift to a Puccini soprano, and an eager Hartig embraced its soaring lyricism and wrenching pathos. I had missed the plangent Romanian soprano’s Met Mimi and Micaëla, but I’m pleased to have at last made her acquaintance. I’m now eager to hear more of her appealing, limpid voice when she tackles Susanna next month in the revival of Richard Eyre’s overblown Le Nozze di Figaro.
Ukrainian bass Tsymbalyuk created a sensation as Calixto Bieito’s Boris Godunov in Munich several years ago, but he had only previously appeared at the Met in small Verdi roles, Il Trovatore’s Ferrando and Lodovico in Otello. His towering Timur on Monday was only slightly less physically decrepit than usual, but it was sung with a house-filling, gratifyingly full, rich voice in its prime, much different from the “ready-for-retirement” bass we’ve been hearing lately in the role.
The two months off between performances only showed up in a few iffy moments toward the conclusion of the Ping-Pang-Pong scene with Dwayne Croft, Tony Stevenson and Eduardo Valdes. And the thrillingly full-throated chorus sounded occasionally shaky in the second and third acts, but they and the fine orchestra otherwise continued to flourish under the taut baton of Paolo Carignani.
Although some complain about the 15+ performance runs of Verdi and Puccini standards of late at the Met, but I for one was thrilled last season to compare the remarkable Violettas of Marina Rebeka and Sonya Yoncheva, for example. Likewise, this season I have reveled at the opportunity to experience three such fascinatingly contrasted pairs of Turandots and Calafs (although I unfortunately missed Lise Lindstrom), along with two compelling Liùs (Leah Crocetto’s eluded me though) and three Timurs. And, yes, the jaw-dropping Franco Zeffirelli production still inspires gasps and mindless applause every time!
Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera