From the Archives: Turandot at the Met
By Peter Clark
“The night was filled with splendors, for this is an opera in which the eye and the ear must be equally absorbed.” So wrote W.J. Henderson, eminent critic of The New York Sun, following the United States premiere of Puccini’s Turandot at the Met in 1926 (pictured above). Visual splendor has been an integral part of Turandot performances ever since. For this Italian fantasy, set in a fairy tale China, with its grandiose palace scenes, heroic vocal hurdles, and massive choral apotheoses, demands nothing less than opulence.
The Met premiere of Turandot followed seven months after the world premiere at La Scala conducted by Arturo Toscanini in April, 1926. By then, New York audiences were devoted Puccini fans, as his La Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly already were repertory staples, and two of his later works—La Fanciulla del West and Il Trittico—had had their world premieres at the Metropolitan. The Met’s General Manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, had collaborated with Puccini for decades in both Italy and America.
So it was natural that the Met would be first in line to purchase the U.S. premiere rights for his swansong Turandot ($4,000 for the first five performances and $600 per performance after that), and would produce it in lavish style. Famed art deco architect and theatrical designer Joseph Urban created the sets, described by Henderson as “gorgeous in color, appropriate in mood, and touched with the fantasy of the story.” His daughter Gretel Urban designed the “magnificent” costumes. Wilhelm von Wymetal directed the production, which, according to The New York Times, featured as many as 650 people on stage in addition to the principal artists.
The Met’s contract with Puccini’s publisher Ricordi for the performing rights specified that Tullio Serafin would conduct. Serafin had come to the Met in 1924 as the chief conductor of the Italian repertory. He was a highly respected musician who, in addition to the core Italian repertory (pictured above), led numerous premieres of new works by both Italian and American composers. Maria Jeritza, the Viennese diva who had taken the Met by storm five years earlier, took the demanding title role and impressed with her “amazing prodigality” of tone as well as her ability to handle the 20-foot train of her costume. Her glamour and charisma claimed much attention, and the title role basically became her personal property for the four seasons Turandot ran after its premiere. Jeritza’s match in stage ardor and vocal decibels was Italian tenore di forza Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. Together with the spectacular sets, costumes, and stage pageantry, they electrified audiences bringing in a season record in ticket sales of $18,745 at the premiere. But after the novelty wore off, Turandot’s popularity waned, and the production was sold to the Chicago Opera in 1933.
It has been suggested that the difficulty of finding singers for the heroic title roles led to Turandot’s 30-year absence from the Met following the initial four-season run. Perhaps it was also the cost of mounting such an elaborate production during the years of the Great Depression and World War II. In any case, Turandot did not return until 1961, but it came back with all the pomp and grandeur that the piece requires. The new production was assigned to Yoshio Aoyama, whose 1958 Madama Butterfly staging had been a hit, but when he fell ill, Nathaniel Merrill took over as stage director. Most notable were the set and costume designs (two seen below) by Cecil Beaton, Academy Award– and Tony Award–winning designer as well as famous photographer, diarist, interior designer, and all-round creative artist. New York Times critic Harold Schoenberg was enthusiastic, “It was a handsome production, full of color, elaborate costumes and scenery. The Metropolitan Opera did not stint.”
The musical side was perhaps even more impressive with the great Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson (pictured below) and Italian tenor Franco Corelli—an incomparable stentorian pairing in the lead roles. Nilsson “soared full and solidly, over orchestra, chorus, and soloists, up to a tremendous high C that sounded as if there were still plenty in reserve,” and Corelli’s voice “solidly anchored, was easily produced, and he matched Miss Nilsson note for note.” The Nilsson-Corelli duo thrilled audiences and, through now legendary broadcasts and recordings, came to set the standard for their respective roles. Over the next 15 years, they repeated their performances as Turandot and Calàf often, and each of them holds the record for the most performances of their role at the Met: Nilsson sang Turandot 52 times and Corelli was Calàf on 54 occasions. Their conductor at the premiere was another legend, Leopold Stokowski, who was making his company debut. The twelve performance run of Turandot in 1961 would be the only opera he conducted at the Met in his long and storied career.
By 1987, it was time for a new production of Turandot that would take advantage of the greatly enhanced technical possibilities of the opera house at Lincoln Center, which had opened in 1966. The obvious choice was the Italian director Franco Zeffirelli whose elaborately detailed, colorfully realistic productions of repertory staples—as well as of the world premiere of Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, which inaugurated the new opera house—had already made him the idol of the opera-going public. Turandot, the ultimate operatic spectacle, was right up his alley. “A big, eye catching, densely-packed, opulent new production staged by the master of monumentality, Franco Zeffirelli,” declared the New York Post critic. While many reviewers took a priggish attitude about excessive display, the shear theatricality of Zeffirelli’s spectacle (pictured below) created a sensation with audiences. Turandot became the show to see in New York, a hit on the scale of a Broadway smash, and tickets were practically unobtainable. James Levine, the Met’s Artistic Director, conducted a strong cast with Hungarian soprano Eva Marton in the title role and Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo as Calàf. Americans Leona Mitchell and Paul Plishka sang Liù and Timur respectively, and Swiss tenor Hugues Cuénod, known principally as an art song singer, made his Met debut at age 84 as Emperor Altoum.
The Zeffirelli production, still in the repertory after 33 years, has remained one of the Met’s most popular productions having been performed 203 times—more than both preceding productions combined. Casts during these years have changed frequently but have included Ghena Dimitrova, Maria Guleghina, Gwyneth Jones, and Nina Stemme in the title role; Marcelo Álvarez, Marcello Giordani, Richard Margison, and Luciano Pavarotti as Calàf; and Angela Gheorghiu, Anita Hartig, Hei-Kyung Hong, Aprile Millo, and Teresa Stratas as Liù. The most recent revival in the fall of 2019 featured Christine Goerke as Turandot, Yusif Eyvazov as Calàf, and Eleonora Buratto as Liù, under the baton of Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Peter Clark is the Met’s Director of Archives.