When I explained the plot of Puccini’s Turandot to my 22-year old daughter, she wrinkled her nose. “A woman’s ‘no’ turns to ‘yes’ because of a forced kiss? That’s sort of disturbing, isn’t it?” she asked. It is disturbing, like many classic opera plots, although no mention of any contemporary controversy intrudes into The Met’s program notes for Franco Zeffirelli’s 32-year-old production. However, Christine Goerke, as the title princess, makes this moment almost believable, as part of a thrillingly fleshed-out performance that is everything one wants opera to be. None of the other soloists quite met that standard, although Eleonora Buratto gave an exquisite performance as the slave girl Liù. The evening’s other standout was the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, arrayed primarily downstage in this production. Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin took full advantage of their immediacy to craft eerie, haunting meditations and hair-raising climaxes in evening’s most compelling non-Goerke moments.

Christine Goerke (Turandot)
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

The orchestra contributed mightily to these climaxes – at times it was hard to believe the orchestra was in a pit. Throughout, Nézet-Séguin emphasized the coloristic aspects of Puccini’s score, marshalling a parade of brilliant orchestral effects. Nevertheless, his overall approach seemed somewhat sterile, as though he had chosen to highlight the work’s status as the most “modern” of Puccini’s operas, despite the fact that its innovations have long since been absorbed into the common musical language. The human passion one associates with this composer was unmistakably evident from the orchestra only in the second act’s riddle sequence, not coincidentally Goerke’s first major scene.

Buratto’s first act aria “Signore, ascolta!” was a highlight. She has a warm, expressive sound, and both exhibited impressive dynamic control in the higher registers and made startling but effective use of her chest voice as the aria dipped below the staff. She was equally affecting in her third act material.

Yusif Eyvazov (Calaf), James Morris (Timur) and Eleonora Buratto (Liù)
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

Tenor Yusif Eyvazov, as Calaf, fared less well. While his high notes were as brilliant as could be wished, and he delivered nicely on the opera’s breakout aria “Nessun dorma,” he was often covered by the orchestra in the middle register. Some of this can be laid at the feet of the staging (in his opening moments, for instance, Calaf is kneeling over his long-lost father Timur and effectively singing to the floor). Some of it is undoubtedly the conductor’s responsibility; the ability to deliver huge orchestral climaxes comes with trade-offs, and Goerke too was occasionally covered in her lowest register. But it happened often enough to Eyvazov that I suspect the reediness I sometimes heard in his sound betrays a lack of core to his voice. Eyvazov also seemed ill at ease with the static nature of the staging, trapped in a single set of hand gestures and pacing. The one time he was allowed to move, solidly holding a high note while striding upstage to strike the gong announcing his intention to woo the princess, it seemed a relief.

By contrast, Goerke, whose staging is no less static, electrified the stage from the moment she opened her mouth in the second act. She projected a fully realized inner life simply through her singing. The difference in delivery among the three riddles she asks Calaf, as he answers them correctly and her anxiety mounts, was by itself a masterclass in acting through music. Her entrance aria “In questa reggia” was steely and powerful, recalling her recent Brünnhilde for The Met. But subsequent material explored a range of colors, all tied to an actual character arc. Even her performance in the third act duet, featuring the aforementioned awakening of love by now-culturally-awkward forced kiss, was convincingly human, despite the lack of anything resembling that level of acting from her scene partner.

© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

As the ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong, Alexey Lavrov, Tony Stevenson and Eduardo Valdes were appropriately cartoonish where necessary, and delightfully affecting in the second part of their trio that opens the second act, in which they pine for their homes in the country. The vocal cast was rounded out by James Morris as Timur, Carlo Bosi as Emperor Altoum, and Javier Arrey as the Mandarin, all of whom turned in solid performances in their relatively thankless roles.

Besides Christine Goerke’s Turandot, however, the other vocal stars of the evening were the chorus. They ranged from ferocious, to haunting, to triumphant, to eerie, creating a richness of human expression otherwise provided here only by the star soprano.