Attitudes towards Franco Zeffirelli’s productions are
greatly divided. I am myself in two minds. His sets are lavish,
colourful, sometimes breathtakingly so and there are always
a lot of things happening. That said, it seems very often that
background ‘affairs’ become so important that they
divert interest from the main conflict. His Metropolitan Turandot
is that kind of spectacle: spontaneous applause from the audience
at the mere sight of the sets. So impressive are they that the
onlooker drowns in all the surrounding business and the story
seems unessential. The effect at the beginning of Cav
is similar. The stage is filled with people carrying out sundry
everyday chores; there is perpetual movement. What I like with
Zeffirelli is that he respects the composer’s and librettist’s
intentions. He never plays hokum with modernized sets or fancy
costumes. He is honest - although over-the-top. Here the pictures
are darkish and rather gritty which dilutes the effect a little.
Once one has accepted the larger-than-life production one can
safely relax and concentrate on the well known story, or rather
savour the acting ability and the singing.
We notice that Turiddu’s Siciliana in the middle
of the prelude is uncommonly off-stage but can anyway enjoy
Plácido Domingo’s healthy ring and beauty of tone.
When the curtain rises it takes quite some time before the drama
proper gets going and that’s a reason why Zeffirelli wants
something spectacular to keep the audience happy. Santuzza is
far from happy, suspecting that Turiddu is unfaithful. Alfio
appears, still unaware of what’s happening behind his
back. Vern Shinall, a baritone not previously known to me, has
a grand voice but no nuances. Tatiana Troyanos, on the other
hand, is glorious. She has a tendency to sing sharp when pressing
the voice too hard at climaxes but she is a great actor and
Voi lo sapete is touching. Domingo, now appearing on
stage for the first time, is a handsome Turiddu and is in luminous
vocal shape. The duet with Santuzza is one of the highlights.
Lola has little to sing but to make her a worthy rival to Santuzza
she needs to be her vocal equal. Isola Jones in this role is
cast from strength and I have heard few better.
The final scene, at Mamma Lucia’s tavern, is verismo at
its most blatant. It needs a fully-fledged dramatic actor with
histrionic powers. Domingo is as close to the ideal as possible.
I remember Giuseppe Giacomini on a more than twenty-year-old
Philips recording - recently reissued at budget price. He runs
Domingo very close, but Domingo is in even sappier voice. Mamma,
quel vino e generoso is almost unbearably intense. Unfortunately
what follows is a great blemish and this has nothing to do with
Domingo or any of the people on stage and in the pit but is
down to the audience. When Turiddu leaves the stage we know
that within a minute we will hear the distant cries from a woman
‘Turiddu has been killed’. The charged atmosphere
after Turiddu’s last notes is something to be savoured
in silence. Not so the Metropolitan audience. They break the
spell in no time through violent and ruthless applause and spoil
the whole thing. A horrible anticlimax! If you can stomach this
and accept Zeffirelli’s production and can stand an unsubtle
but big-voiced Alfio, the performance is well worth seeing and
hearing. Incidentally both Jones and Shinall made their Metropolitan
debuts that evening.
Not many tenors have the stamina to sing both Turiddu and Canio
on the same evening, but Domingo has. Besides the physical strain
and wear on the vocal cords there is also the emotional strain.
Domingo admirably steps into a new character during the interval
and also manages to find another voice for Canio. His address
to the people at the beginning of act I, Mi accordan di parlar,
is lighter and more lyrical, reminding me of the young Carlo
Bergonzi in his 1951 recording of the opera for Cetra. A little
further on Un tal gioco is a shade darker, more dramatic
but still with some bel canto feeling. At the end of
the act Vesti la giubba is the deeply felt, big-boned,
intense outpouring that few latter-day tenors have managed so
convincingly. The end of the opera, when all mental barriers
are gone, is terrific and horrifying. Domingo is not only one
of the greatest of singers but his combination of singing and
acting is unique.
He is in good company in this production. Many will remember
Teresa Stratas in the 1984 film of La traviata, where
she was Violetta opposite Domingo’s Alfredo and with James
Levine as here, conducting and Zeffirelli, as here, directing.
She was also one of the great actors and her charisma is very
tangible in the present production. Her aria, Stridono lassù,
swift and nuanced, is one highspot. The duet with Silvio, always
my favourite scene in this opera, is another, with Alan Monk’s
lyrical baritone a fine complement to the soprano. The bigger
baritone role, Tonio, is superbly sung and acted by Sherrill
Milnes, whose prologue is grandiose. James Atherton’s
fine lyric tenor is perfect for Arlecchino’s serenade.
The sound is not in the same class as the performance but is
acceptable. With a well-nigh perfect Pagliacci and a
slightly flawed Cavalleria rusticana this is a good buy.