How absolutely marvellous that after its première at the Met in 1987, Franco Zeffirelli’s sumptuous, detail-rich production is still being rekindled for all of those who admire attention to detail and an unerring eye to witness first hand.
Without a doubt, it is the look and feel of Zeffirelli’s genius that produces the finest moments for this 30-year-later incarnation. The crème de la crème moment, of course, is the unveiling in Act II of the inner palace, replete with brilliant golds, whites and all manner of fabrics—whether draping bodies or flurrying in the human-made breeze of the army of minions who ensure that—so at one with Puccini’s score—the dramatic flow never stops. How curious indeed that when the avalanche of light—all the better to provide stark contrast to the darker scenes around it—filled the Met’s stage, that it was near impossible for those using the back-of-seat surtitles to decipher the translations.
To add requisite contrast, the comic relief (but nevertheless very sage commentaries à la Shakespeare) of Ping, Pang and Pong (Alexey Lavrov, Tony Stevenson, Eduardo Valdes) along with their masked, dancing, unfurling counterparts (Elliott Reiland, Amir Levy, Andrew Robinson) were ideally differentiated with swathes of yellow, red and green.
The large chorus—most often in nondescript colourings—used their bodies to add to the general ebb and flow or—provide a display of gymnastics that added further punch to the action that may have not gone unnoticed by present-day director-chorographers such as Stratford Festival’s Donna Feore (cross-reference below).
The exacting detail of the sets must be the envy of countless designers in the 21st century who have to settle for “good enough” in order to stay within budget.
In many ways, this production could have been savoured with no sound at all from the singers or the pit.
And therein lay its few defects.
Conductor Carlo Rizzi gave an impassioned, sonically charged performance but his gestures couldn’t ensure razor-sharp ensemble, particularly from the snare drum and tympani. The offstage band were frequently out of sync with their orchestra pit counterparts.
In the title role, Oksana Dyka came across as somewhat strident in her early contributions. Initially, I thought this approach to be a deft bit of characterization of “iciness” but even after her conversion to a, relatively, loving human being, the edge slipped back on occasion.
Aleksandrs Antonenko’s Calàf was nearly note perfect—no mean feat in the challenging role—”Nessun dorma!” rightfully brought down the house; as Liù, Maria Agresta was a miracle of control (exquisite change of register) and stoicism, making her death almost something to applaud and admire.
In this 1000th Met appearance (GM Peter Gelb marking the milestone with an onstage presentation after Act 1), James Morris was in customary superb form infusing Timur with a fine sense of tragedy in deed, gesture and vocal declamations. (Throughout the production, Zeffirelli’s especial understanding of hand movements as characterization was evident, three cheers to revival stage director, David Kneuss, for continuing the tradition.)
Those fortunate enough to have tickets for this long-loved production are in for an unforgettable evening of visual splendour and a musically charged telling of one of the oeuvre’s worst bullies changing her tune with an unexpected, initially unwanted kiss. JWR