In Turandot, love conquers all, including Franco Zeffirelli, whose vintage, 1987 staging of Giacomo Puccini's final opera is an idealized fairytale China in the "age of fables". Zeffirelli envisioned Puccini's tenth opera (counting Il trittico as one work) as a stylishly-grand affair, a tableau that adores static chinoiserie, perfectly-tailored to the gaping Metropolitan Opera stage.

Lise Lindstrom (Turandot) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Lise Lindstrom (Turandot)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Based on the play of the same title by Carlo Gozzi, with lyrics by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, the "opera of enigmas" premiered at the Teatro alla Scala in April 1926, two years after Puccini died, leaving the score unfinished through Act III's funeral procession of Liù. Vetted by Casa Ricordi and Arturo Toscanini, opera theaters summarily use the Franco Alfano finale, which wove Puccini's sketches and orchestral fragments into music for the final love duet.

Zeffirelli spun the libretto's fairytale into a super-stylized, fabled Chinese mise-en-scène with gongs, dragons, lanterns and pagodas lit in red fires (“Fuoco e sangue!”) and blue moons (“Perché tarda la luna?”) by lighting designer Gil Wechsler, underpinned by a unified, meticulous choral mass by Donald Palumbo and sweet white voices by Anthony Piccolo.

Act I’s Imperial City curtain rose on a writhing mass in muddy-hued peasant robes by costume designers Dada Saligeri and Anna Anni. Social castes were separated by progressively lush, saturated fabrics and timeless, solid-construction velvets, silks and brocades. Vertically-raked stages compacted scenes into dense striations rising towards the louver-hung heavens, culminating in the Act II Ping-Pang-Pong pavilion.

Scene from <i>Turandot</i> © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera (2004)
Scene from Turandot
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera (2004)

At its worst, Zeffirelli's gilded, cinematic yawns glazed the manuscript's pathos and intimacy, and suspended suspense and ambiguities such as the Ice Princess' final thawing and love's true kiss, the tragic scene of Liù’s suicide and the mysticism of the "enigma". Beneath the confection, Zeffirelli’s China reads as aloof and detached as the cold-hearted princess, where dramaturgical intentions are painted in broad curlicues. When eyes glazed over at the Zeffirellian spectacle, acrobatics under choreographer Chiang Ching and stage director David Kneuss twirled for compliments.

Generous artists such as the complimentary prince and princess – Marcelo Álvarez's Calaf and Lise Lindstrom's Turandot, respectively – thawed Zeffirelli's ice. Tough yet tender, Lindstrom's cool-edged tonalities made the princess’s cruelty and repressed sentiments convincing. As a throwback to great Hollywood divas’ gravity, with classic stage language remodeled and modernized, she was bent human by the power of love. "In questa reggia" melded subtle phrasing and nuance, before segueing into a chilling, biting "quel grido e quella morte!"

Marcelo Álvarez (Calaf) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Marcelo Álvarez (Calaf)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
From hero to lover, Marcelo Álvarez’s Calaf was a noble, slightly-scruffy prince, perfectly poised in a girdled vest, vocally lightweight yet nuanced with pleasant lyric inflections. Arias such as “Nessun dorma!" were convincing, but he lacked intimacy and sweetness in other moments as "Non piangere, Liù!". "Figlio del cielo! Io chiedo d’affrontar la prova!" was phrased as a meditation rather than a command.

Fragile and delicate, Liù is indebted with the plot's powerful dénouement – her selfless sacrifice in the name of love sparks the thawing of Turandot – yet Leah Crocetto's characterization of the slave girl was determined and strong-willed. "Signore, ascolta!" brought great warmth, high polish, control and strength from a lush, healthy instrument with excellent phrasing and inflection climaxing at "Ah, pietà!"

Dwayne Croft as Ping, Tony Stevenson as Pang and Eduardo Valdes as Pong played less commedia dell'arte and more as vessels of hope, particularly in the Act II ode to nostalgia "Ho una casa nell’Honan", which was robbed of melancholy and infused with spirit. James Morris brought an authoritative bass baritone as respectful Timur wrapped in Mongolian lambskin.

Musically, Puccini melded numerous oriental styles between Western languages and Chinese melodies. Dissonant harmonies such as the striking choral “Là, sui monti dell’est" require a large span of instruments. Under conductor Paolo Carignani's lugubrious tempi – which were interminably slowed to molten lava for popular arias – sparkling, riotous color was muddied, and Puccinian quirks were glazed banalities.

Fittingly enough, it's on record that Toscanini was dissatisfied with Alfano's ending for its unconvincing segue from Liù's death to Turandot's thaw. Despite generous artistry and Zeffirelli's venerated production, Carignani lacked conviction.