Review: The Met Opera’s ‘Turandot’ Returns With a Strong Debut

Puccini’s “Turandot,” a verismo opera set in a fabled version of ancient China, makes for an odd love story. Its unlikable romantic leads go largely unfazed by the death and dismemberment they instigate; when they finally share true love’s kiss, they’re standing atop a figurative pile of corpses.

On Wednesday at the Metropolitan Opera, the conductor Oksana Lyniv made a strong debut, emphasizing the murderous, life-or-death stakes instead of the fairy-tale Orientalism that has made it a cultural lightning rod in recent years.

“Turandot” has been on the receiving end of calls for revision and more for the stereotypes it perpetuates about Chinese people — such as its “dragon lady” title princess — recalling an imperialistic era of European chauvinism.

The reckoning around “Turandot” creates a problem for the Met, because the company’s long-running production, a lavish spectacle introduced by the director Franco Zeffirelli in 1987, is a hit. The gold-and-ecru throne room of Act II still dazzles, and eye-popping exoticism runs rampant, with acrobats, ribbon dancers, curled-roof pavilions and a dragon puppet.

But that stage dressing was not present in Lyniv’s exciting conducting. The brass stabs that open Act I had an almost expressionistic quality — severe, vital, grim — and the ones that closed it were cold, powerful and withholding. Taut strings and slinky woodwinds moved with dramatic, serpentine efficiency. Lyniv seized opportunities to foreground astringent harmonies.

Turandot’s motif, which Puccini based on a Chinese folk song, was splendid without being decorative in Act I, and warmly earthy in Act III after the princess had been humbled. Lyniv’s sense of rubato created just enough elasticity for the singers to phrase naturally, as in the ministers’ dreamily nostalgic “Ho una casa nell’Honan.”

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