The Met Ends Its Winter Hiatus With Two Delightful Italian Masterpieces

With a fierce 'La Forza del Destino' and the classic 'Turandot,' the opera house's new Winter-Spring Season is off to a fabulous start.

A man in a suit sings while two people look on
Lise Davidsen, Brian Jagde and Soloman Howard in ‘La Forza del Destino.’ Karen Almond/Met Opera

Returning from its month-long winter hiatus the Metropolitan Opera offered audiences a pair of Italian masterpieces in productions that couldn’t have been more different. The premiere of Mariusz Treliński’s bleak, updated La Forza del Destino was followed two days later by the company’s 218th edition of Franco Zeffirelli’s opulently traditional Turandot. Each showed the Met at its best by delighting both the eyes and the ears.

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Verdi’s Forza hadn’t been seen at the Met since 2006, a much longer absence than originally planned. A production by controversial Calixto Bieito announced for late 2017 was abruptly canceled for undisclosed reasons. This time the company turned to Treliński, the Polish director responsible for its Iolanta/Bluebeard’s Castle double-bill and Tristan und Isolde that opened the 2016-17 season. Hoping to unify Piave’s sprawling Forza libretto, he conjured an increasingly chaotic world in which his principals tumble helplessly into violence and death.

Staging the overture has become expected of regie productions, and Treliński’s proved unusually helpful in setting up the opera’s action. Before the music begins Leonora, Forza’s heroine, exits her father’s Hotel Calatrava smoking furiously. As she reenters the hotel, the music commences and Boris Kudliċka’s hyper-realistic set begins to spin as we witness preparations both for her birthday party as well as her planned escape that same evening with her secret lover Alvaro. After her father surprises them, Alvaro drops his pistol in deference to the older man accidentally killing him. Calatrava curses the lovers with his dying breath prompting Leonora and Alvaro to flee. Her brother Carlo swears vengeance on them both and spends the remainder of the opera hunting them down.

Two performers on stage at an opera. The man is standing, the woman is kneeling.
Soloman Howard and Lise Davidsen. Karen Almond/Met Opera

Treliński brings the action into the present day in an unspecified locale where a war breaks out precipitated by Calatrava’s death. Leonora seeks refuge in a forbidding, unfriendly monastery while Alvaro, believing she is dead, joins the fighting and befriends Carlo on the battlefield as neither initially knows the other’s true identity. In a war-destroyed subway station, the exhausted trio finally meet their fate: Alvaro kills Carlo who with his last breath strikes down Leonora.

Though Bartek Macias’ projections of warring helicopters add little, Kudliċka’s near-continuously revolving stage vividly captures the inexorable downward spiral that entraps Leonora, Alvaro and Carlo. Verdi and Piave attempted to lighten their dark tale by including secondary characters like Preziosilla, Trabuco and Melitone, but in Trelińka’s dystopian world, they emerge as sinister rather than comic.

The Met’s cast threw itself into Forza with striking dramatic commitment and a fearless outpouring of full-throated Verdi singing. Though each shone in his aria, three hell-raising duets between Alvaro and Carlo brought out the electrifying best in Brian Jagde and Igor Golovatenko. Carlo must be one of the most relentlessly single-minded characters in opera, but an anguished Golovatenko almost made his quest for vengeance sympathetic, while Jagde showed us that Alvaro’s quick temper doomed his hope to escape his part in the Calatrava family tragedy.

Treliński cast one bass as both Leonora’s father and Padre Guardiano; in his double role, Soloman Howard began in unfocused form but then excelled as the stern priest who reluctantly welcomes Leonora. In an unexpected twist, he returned in the final scene as Calatrava’s ghost haunting the final catastrophes that befall his offspring. As he has done at the Met with the Sacristan in Tosca, the always welcome Patrick Carfizzi avoided hoary buffo antics and brought a full, fruity bass-baritone to Melitone.

In her Met debut, Judit Kutasi as Preziosilla arrived with a big dramatic mezzo which uneasily tackled her vivacious numbers. Florid passages were gracelessly attacked, while several quick high notes emerged with audible effort. It’s likely though she’ll be better cast as Amneris when the Met’s new Aïda opens on New Year’s Eve.

Anyone paying attention to the Mer’s pre-opening Forza promotional push might have mistaken the opera for a one-woman show. Lise Davidsen, undertaking her first staged Forza and her first Italian role at the Met, appeared in all the posters and dress rehearsal video clips. That preeminence convinced the man in front of me and a couple to my left to simply skip the third act during which Leonora does not appear. Though many predicted the role would not suit her, Davidsen demonstrated that the Met’s extraordinary confidence in her was warranted. The Norwegian soprano confidently came through with an uncommonly moving portrayal of a woman of wealth and privilege who loses everything in one unlucky, impulsive moment.

While Davidsen’s cooly enormous voice may lack the Italianate warmth some expect for Verdi, she sang with a bracing fullness always tempered with delicate nuance. While she nearly raised the roof with her stunning “Malediziones” that concludes “Pace pace mio dio,” she also closed the second act with an exquisitely floated “Le Vergine degli angeli.”

After a stirring overture, Yannick Nézét-Seguin briefly lost focus causing Davidsen’s first-act aria “Me pellegrina ed orfana” to fail to make its usual impact. His inordinately stiff treatment of the bouncy music beginning the second scene caused alarm, but he soon righted course for the offstage chorus over which Davidsen soared thrillingly. From then on, he led with a surer hand encouraging clarinetist Anton Rist to spin an exquisite introduction to Alvaro’s aria. Unfortunately, as with new productions of La Traviata and Don Carlos, Nézét-Seguin continued to disdain performing Verdi operas completely resulting in niggling cuts, as well as the complete excision of Melitone’s part from the third act.

Unlike Carrie Cracknell’s recent aimless Met Carmen, Treliński’s updated reimagining of a classic (which, like that Carmen, also featured an upturned vehicle) emerged as a consistently gripping interpretation that was enthusiastically cheered with nary a boo when the production team appeared during the final bows.

A ghostly figure is projected behind a singer in a white shirt standing on a stage
Lise Davidsen in ‘La Forza del Destino.’ Karen Almond/Met Opera

None of Kudliċka’s arresting sets were greeted with applause on opening night however, but the big reveal two nights later of Zeffirelli’s magnificent golden throne room for Turandot once again elicited a screaming ovation, even after thirty-seven years. Puccini revivals remain an outsized component of recent Met seasons, and sometimes they can feel very routine. That was definitely not the case when an exciting Turandot returned featuring the first appearances of Oksana Lyniv and Elena Pankratova along with the Met role debuts of SeokJong Baek and Aleksandra Kurzak.

The biggest splash was made by Ukrainian maestro Lyniv who was in the headlines several years ago as the first female conductor at the Bayreuth Festival. Her tautly spacious Turandot reveled in Puccini’s glorious color palette, particularly in the atmospheric first act when both her orchestra and the magnificent Met chorus cast a magical spell. The Ping-Pang-Pong episodes can feel like time-wasters, but hers sparkled thanks also to Joo Won Kang, Tony Stevenson and Andrew Stetson. She also brought out the score’s savage harshness, particularly in the scene that culminates in Liù’s suicide.

It was beyond her skills to make the abbreviated Alfano ending always used at the Met (composed after Puccini died leaving the opera unfinished) sound inspired. Many opera houses have adopted other solutions: some have restored the Alfano cuts, while others drop the curtain at the point where Puccini stopped composing. An alternate completion by Luciano Berio has occasionally been adopted, while the Washington National Opera this spring will reveal yet another ending newly composed by Christopher Tin.

A stage full of people at an opera performance
Elena Pankratova and SeokJong Baek in ‘Turandot.’ Karen Almond/Met Opera

As the icy princess of the opera’s title, Russian soprano Pankratova, though an imperious veteran Turandot, seemed unusually nervous, sometimes landing brilliant high notes, sometimes going quite flat. She shaded her opening narrative sensitively, yet sounded better once past “In questa reggia.” Her marked tendency to lean back to blast out her biggest high Cs grew amusing by that final, unconvincing love duet. Unexpectedly, her best moments came when she seized the opportunity to sing sweetly and softly. She’s scheduled for twelve performances of Turandot and perhaps she’ll better conquer her nerves as the season progresses.

Her Calaf for her debut—and the remainder of her run—was former baritone, now dramatic tenor Baek. He made his mostly unnoticed company debut in the fall as Ismaele in Nabucco, but as the Unknown Prince who answers Turandot’s riddles, Baek showed that he’s the real deal, singing with brashly confident ardor and applause-gathering bright high notes. He will surely learn to relax more during everyone’s favorite “Nessun dorma” which garnered long and loud applause. His boyishly gauche Calaf was a welcome change from the usual strutting primo tenore.

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Timur is often cast with superannuated basses, but the Met tried harder this time and welcomed back sonorous Vitalij Kowaljow after an absence of five years. His tearful lament over the dead Liù proved immensely touching. Kurzak, taking on her fourth new Puccini heroine at the Met in less than two years, made an effective slave girl, if one without the tearful pathos that others have brought to the role. She might have been tired as she’d sung Madama Butterfly the previous night having taken over when Eleanora Buratto called in sick. However, Puccini might have been better served if the Met had instead called up one of the three other sopranos performing Liù there this season.

Those eager to experience Davidsen as Leonora are reminded that she performs only in the first six Forza performances, including the Met’s March 9 HD transmission. Elena Stikhina takes over the role beginning March 21. Lyniv leads an entirely new cast next month when Christine Goerke, Kurzak’s husband Roberto Alagna in his first Met Calaf, Gabriella Reyes and Peixin Chen head to Zeffirelli’s iconic Peking.

La Forza del Destino and Turandot are on at the Met Opera through March 29 and June 7, respectively.

The Met Ends Its Winter Hiatus With Two Delightful Italian Masterpieces