NEW YORK >> You won't hear Nina Stemme singing in Act 1 of Puccini's "Turandot," but watch closely and you'll spot her — looming over Franco Zeffirelli's massive set on a 12-foot-high platform placed 65 feet back from the orchestra pit.
"It's really me!" the Swedish soprano said with a laugh during an interview this week at the Metropolitan Opera, where she plays the imperious princess who sends suitors to their death if they fail to answer three riddles. Her final performance Saturday afternoon will be broadcast into movie theaters [including Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington and Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield] as part of the Met's Live in HD program.
Besides Stemme, the production stars tenor Marco Berti as Calaf, soprano Anita Hartig as Liu and bass-baritone Alexander Tsymbalyuk as Calaf's father, Timur. Paolo Carignani conducts.
In some productions, the star is spared from having to leave her dressing room during Act 1. "At La Scala, they used a stand-in," Stemme said. "And I was very grateful."
Extra time backstage is important for any Turandot so she can limber up her vocal cords before launching into the aria, "In questa reggia" ("In this palace"), in which she explains why she has sworn vengeance on all men.
"At least at the Met I have plenty of time to re-warm up my voice during the first intermission," she said, "because it takes them so long to change the set. Luckily!"
Turandot's two brief silent appearances are vital to the plot. In the first, she sends the Prince of Persia to the scaffold with a dismissive gesture. In the second, she gazes down on Calaf, the prince who will succeed where others have failed. Stemme uses this encounter to plant the seed of Turandot's attraction to the man who will thaw her icy resolve.
"Later, after she has fallen in love with him, she sings about the first time their eyes met," Stemme said. "So in a way, this is something you can play with. I use this moment to start a process within Turandot, which she is trying to fight, but then she has to give in to it."
Stemme tries to convey Turandot's ambivalence during the riddle scene. "She's enjoying it when he has trouble solving the enigmas," she said. "Yet, at the same time, part of her is admiring him and wants him to guess."
Here are the riddles and the correct answers:
• Riddle No. 1: What is born each night and dies each dawn?
• Riddle No. 2: What flickers red and warm but is not fire?
• Riddle No. 3: What is like ice, yet sets you on fire?
After he triumphs, Calaf — identified up to this point only as the Unknown Prince — offers Turandot a way out: She won't have to marry him if she can guess his real name by morning.
Puccini died of a heart attack while being treated for throat cancer in 1924, leaving the opera unfinished. He had faced a daunting task trying to resolve a plot that requires Turandot to undergo an abrupt transformation. One moment she is callously watching as the slave girl Liu kills herself rather than betray Calaf. The next she is singing a love duet with Calaf and becoming a sympathetic human being.
"He didn't know how to get on once he decided that Liu had to die," Stemme said. "But it's her sacrifice that brings them together. In a way, it's emotional chaos for Turandot."
Puccini's publisher chose Franco Alfano to finish the work, and his ending is usually performed today, including at the Met. A different version composed by Luciano Berio in 2001 is sometimes used instead.
There's no more famous moment in opera than "Nessun Dorma" ("None shall sleep"), Calaf's aria in Act 3. Its breakout popularity with non-opera-going fans stems from the 1990 FIFA World Cup when Luciano Pavarotti sang it at the first Three Tenors concert. At the 1998 Grammy Awards show, Aretha Franklin — filling in for Pavarotti — furthered its crossover appeal with a soul-stirring rendition.
LIVE IN HD
What: The Metropolitan Opera — "Turandot" by Puccini
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Running time: 3 hours 40 minutes
Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington; Beacon Cinema, 57 North St., Pittsfield
Tickets: Mahaiwe (reserved seating) — $25 (adults); $18 (students under 13); Beacon (general admission seating) — $25