The Metropolitan Opera’s 1987 production of Puccini’s Turandot is one of the two sacred cows left over from “when Franco Zeffirelli ruled the Met;” the other is La bohème. They are as reviled as they are adored: too busy, too gaudy, smothering the music, so many people that it’s hard to find the principals, and on the other hand, exquisite, ultra-realistic, glamorous, and keeping the “grand” in grand opera. One could argue that in the case of Bohème the story’s intimacy and small scale are bloated by the vast panoramas presented (the second act has over 300 people on stage), but it’s harder to dislike the Turandot, despite the same 300 (or more) people who wander in and out.

Christine Goerke (Turandot) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Christine Goerke (Turandot)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Zeffirrelli’s attention to detail is astounding – the crowds who inhabit Legendary Peking are in the midst of a royal decree, an offstage beheading, a public display of cruel power, a life-and-death contest, a public suicide and a coronation. It’s a violent group who nonetheless feel pity for the victims of their bitter princess – the heads of her former lovers are right there, on spikes. A depiction of the rising of the moon hypnotizes them; the silent arrival of Turandot at the rear of the stage on a rising elevator dazzles them. Wherever one looks there is energy and movement. The famous Riddle Scene – the second scene of Act II – is as regal as it can get, all in brilliant silvers, whites and golds, with reflecting pools filled with lily pads and supernumeraries with twirling umbrellas and waving acres of fabric. Love it or hate it, you can’t accuse it of being ineffective.

And the Met’s current revival features singers who tackle their roles with élan, and for the most part, great success. At the center is, of course, the eponymous anti-heroine, Turandot, sung now by Christine Goerke, who, after years of excellent performances, has recently been crowned the dramatic soprano she is. She’s a stunning Turandot with a big and warm voice. She hurls B flats, B naturals and high Cs into the house with power and thrust and apparently no effort. She also manages to portray the ice princess’s morphing into a real, feeling person brilliantly in the opera’s final scene by darkening her low notes with trembling and fear. A thoroughly satisfying portrayal. (The role will be sung at different times throughout the season by Lise Lindstrom, Jennifer Wilson and Nina Stemme.)

Hibla Gerzmava (Liù) and James Morris (Timur) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Hibla Gerzmava (Liù) and James Morris (Timur)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Marcelo Alvarez is the love-smitten Calaf, singing a role about a half-size too large for him, but singing it with great heart. Mr Alvarez, though probably nobody’s favorite tenor, is always good to encounter, as he is in this production. At times he forgets entirely about legato and snatches high notes out of the air – it’s muscular and good-sized singing, even if it does lack elegance. Hibla Gerzmava’s Liu is less delicate than one might want and her tone lacks softness, but she’s very good; her suicide scene is very moving. James Morris sang Timur, Calaf’s father, with nobility and feeling, if not great vocal sheen.

Dwayne Croft, Tony Stevenson and Eduardo Valdes make a colorful and snidely sentimental/ pragmatic Ping, Pang and Pong, and Ronald Naldi sings the character tenor role of Emperor Altoum with more voice than most. Paolo Carignani leads the gargantuan forces with power, and when required, tenderness, bringing out the exoticisms in Puccini’s score. This Turandot remains a grand spectacle, worthy of the opera itself, and the cast rightly earns the wild ovation it received.