Yannick Nézet-Séguin Leads a Revelatory 'Turandot'

(Critic's Notebook)

Yannick Nézet-Séguin Leads a Revelatory 'Turandot'

NEW YORK — Last season, when Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s tenure as the Metropolitan Opera’s music director began, audiences had to wait more than two months for him to actually conduct something. It was worth the wait. He led a fresh, elegant and gripping account of Verdi’s “La Traviata.”

This season the waiting period has been much shorter. On Thursday, just 10 days after the Met’s season opened with a splendid and timely new production of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” Nézet-Séguin led an exciting and insightful account of Puccini’s “Turandot,” a revival of Franco Zeffirelli’s glittering, over-the-top and popular 1987 production. The strong cast was headed by blazing soprano Christine Goerke as Puccini’s icy Princess Turandot, ardent tenor Yusif Eyvazov as Calaf and plush-voiced soprano Eleonora Buratto as Liù. The chorus, during the crowd scenes, sounded superb.

What stood out, though, was the textured, tart and lushly beautiful playing Nézet-Séguin drew from the orchestra. He seemed intent on making a case for Puccini’s final opera, first performed in 1926, nearly two years after the composer’s death, as a musically daring score — as contemporary, in its way, as any other opera of the 1920s.

Though this was a great night for Nézet-Séguin and the Met, it was also somewhat frustrating. As with last season, he will conduct just three works this season: Anew production of Berg’s “Wozzeck” comes in late December and Massenet’s “Werther” next spring. On balance, audiences should be grateful he’s on the scene at all, since he came to the rescue during a crisis in 2018 when James Levine was fired over allegations of sexual harassment (allegations he has denied).

Nézet-Séguin, who had been tapped to become music director starting with the 2020-21 season, agreed to start two years early. But his busy schedule as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra was already fixed. Indeed, even as he leads “Turandot” at the Met, he will be conducting performances with the Philadelphia players at home, and, Oct. 15, at Carnegie Hall. On Oct. 19 he leads the matinee of “Turandot” at the Met, then dashes to Philadelphia for a concert with the orchestra that night, including Mahler’s demanding Fifth Symphony.

Conducting fine performances and maintaining the excellence of musicians and company members are the most essential parts of being a music director. But it’s just as important to shape long-term artistic priorities. Nézet-Séguin has talked up some enticing commissions and creative initiatives; we will have to wait and see.

On Thursday, from the scene-setting orchestra burst that begins Act I of “Turandot,” set in Peking in legendary times, Nézet-Séguin seemed determined to plumb below the brassy, slashing vehemence of the music and reveal its inner secrets. The steady slicing chords that back up the stern proclamation of a mandarin to the people of Peking regarding Turandot’s bloody edict (that all her potential suitors must answer three riddles or pay with their lives) were dispatched with eerie steadiness at a compellingly reined-in tempo.

As the music shifted into passages of velvety richness and tremulous sonorities, Nézet-Séguin drew out impressionist colorings and harmonic pungencies. Crucial details in the music, including clashing dissonances that juice the chords, came through with startling clarity.

Nézet-Séguin tried, it seemed, to reveal not just musical but psychological complexities in the music. His approach allowed the cast to dig deeper as well and search for subtleties.

Eyvazov has slimmed down noticeably — on Instagram you can see videos of him working out. He looked the part of a dashing, foolishly impulsive young prince who knows how twisted Turandot is but still finds himself hooked by her menacing allure. His voice on this night seemed a little leaner in sound than in previous appearances. But his singing had rich, reedy coloring and youthful ardor, and his soaring phrases with big high notes carried well.

Buratto was an endearing, vocally lovely Liù, the slave who has chosen to accompany and protect Timur, the vanquished king of Tartary, and Calaf’s father, simply because one day, long ago, Calaf smiled at her. Liù has to convince you of her rationale for living in the Act I aria, when she pleads with Calaf to put aside his obsession with Turandot and join her and Timur (here, veteran bass-baritone James Morris) on their lonely journey. Buratto shaped the phrases with melting sound and lyrical grace.

Goerke took a little time to warm up during Turandot’s daunting aria “In questa reggia,” when she explains the origins of her hatred of men. But after a couple of under-pitch high notes, she found her groove and sang the role with steely sound and chilling intensity. And during the tense scene when she poses her riddles to Calaf, who answers them correctly, Goerke already showed a crack in her ice, a moment of vulnerability, to this stranger, even as she registered horror at the thought of him claiming her.

In the last act, Buratto was exquisite in Liù’s aria when she sacrifices herself on behalf of Calaf. Still, what stood out was Nézet-Séguin’s conducting, attentive to hints of Ravel and Debussy in the music and the delicate, hushed, haunting chords. It left you thinking that this extended scene, the last music Puccini wrote, may be his most sublime.

In addition to the three operas Nézet-Séguin will lead this season, he is conducting two of the three concerts by the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Still, the most revealing moment of this season may be the day in February when plans for 2020-21 are announced, the first season truly on his watch. What’s clear already, though, is that in every way, including generational change, the Met has turned a page.

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