The titular role in Puccini's "Turandot" is one of the most difficult in the repertoire, requiring a soprano that not only has a hefty potent voice to rise to the stratosphere every other phrase, but also a strong enough actress to allow the audience to identify with the princess' evolution from an icy monster to a woman stricken by love.

This was the challenge that faced Christine Goerke on Wednesday as she sang the role at the Metropolitan Opera for the very first time. The Met took note of Goerke a few years ago when she became a scene stealer in Strauss' "Die Frau Ohne Schatten" as the wife. And on Tuesday she climbed to the greater peak quite admirably.

Turandot appears almost as a vision in the opera's first half, eliciting desire from the opera's hero Calaf. She eventually comes fully to life in the middle act during a famed riddle scene where she questions Calaf three times with his life on the line. Her opening moments "In questa reggia" personify Turandot's "icy" personality and Goerke seemed to struggle from the onset, her nerves not allowing her to stay on pitch for the opening stanzas of the aria. But surely enough the soprano overcame this slight difficulty and found her ground, pouring Puccini's fiendishly high passages with increasing security. Her rage came through in the riddle scene, easily one of the greatest scenes in opera, with the tension ramped up by her increasing anger at Calaf's getting closer and closer to victory. At one point her voice seemed to lash out at Calaf right before the third riddle, her delivery of "Percuotete quei vili!" featuring a stabbing accent on the start of the phrase.

As she begged the Emperor to spare her, the vulnerability and fear of the character came through and in her final vocal passages of the scene, Goerke's voice rose grandly over the chorus, setting the house alight with sound.

The third act was her most assured, her Turandot coming onstage as a monster ready to torture to get her answer to Calaf's riddle (finding out his name) and here Goerke also managed to express the Princess' altering psychology, her conflicted stare at Liu revealing a conflicted woman. The singing remained assured here but there was a greater degree of sweetness and more connected legato in her singing, a start contrast from the more pointed phrasing of the rendition early on. By the time she sang the final "E il suo nome e l'amor!" in the most delicate of manners, her transformation and Goerke's triump were complete.

Singing as the heroic tenor was Argentine Marcelo Alvarez. The tenor was in excellent form on the evening, his voice up to the challenges of Calaf. Although Alvarez's attack on high notes can sometimes come off as pushed, there is no doubt that the tenor knows how to hold his own in more sustained passages. There were some blushes in the "Non Piangere Liu," with Alvarez seemingly uncomfortable with conductor Paolo Carignani's lagging tempi as well as an aborted attempt at singing a high note with Turandot at the climax of "In questa reggia" (he seemed to go up for the note before recognizing that it might not be a great idea), but he navigated this herculean task quite well. He was undeniably at his best in the middle act during the riddle scene and shaped each passage of three with increasing strength and power. Just witness his delivery of the three "Figlio del cielo, io chiedo d'affrontar la prova!" The first was sung rather calmy, the phrasing smooth and connected. By the third delivery, Alvarez sang with more pointed accents and his voice at its most potent, suggesting Calaf's growing impatience and confidence. The same happened with each riddle as the tenor, who could have easily been exhausted by this point, found greater strength in his voice, emphasizing Calaf's growing dominance over Turandot. From a dramatic standpoint, Alvarez was also quite strong, his increasing movement back and forth about the stage emphasizing his growing confusion and nervousness at times, but the moment he had his answer, he stood his ground, stared right into the Princess' face and delivered the answer with that sunny voice of his. His best moment however did not involve the most heft or vocal power. It came during Calaf's final moments of the scene when he asks Turandot to find out his name. Here Alvarez sang at his sweetest, his voice expressing Calaf's ability for tenderness as he kneeled over to the fallen Princess and tried to connect with her emotionally. It was quite fascinating to see Alvarez observe her and look for some outlet with which to win her -- the sweeter singing, touch her hand or just latching onto something on her dress. Eventually he makes his attempt and it drew the most revolting response from Goerke. A moment of dramatic weight amid in the most subtle of musical and physical means. The Argentine tenor also delivered a confident B natural at the apex of "Nessun Dorma" and was at his most controlled and assured throughout the final duet "Principessa di Morte."

Hibla Gerzmava was a scene-stealer in the role of Liu, her delicate voice drawing a nice contrast to every other person on stage. While most of the other characters bellow out high note in phrase after phrase, Liu stands apart as being able to stretch out moments and pull listeners into the most intimate of worlds. Gerzmava was up to the challenge, her singing of every one of Liu's extended passages filled with warmth and tenderness. In her very first aria, "Signore ascolta," she begs Calaf to not risk his life for Turandot; in this particular moment Gerzmava's voice sang with the most refined of legato lines and worked its way into the upper soprano register with nuance and wistfulness. The final note of the aria started with the most angelic of pianos and slowly crescendoed into a painful plea. Her delivery of "Tanto amore segreto" was a potent example of dramatic singing, with Gerzmava starting the aria with the thinnest of timbres and slowly gaining strength from passage to passage, emphasizing love's fueling the courage in Liu as she confronted torture and death at the hands of Turandot and the Chinese people. The final "Tu che di gel sei ginta" was the most painful of laments, each phrase growing and then falling, Gerzmava's voice sculpting and showering every phrase with glorious sound until her voice reached fever pitch at the climax right before Liu murders herself. Throughout the night, Gerzmava approach Liu as a shy and tentative slave girl, she constantly looked down and her movements seemed to be trials for the character as if moving away from Timur was prohibitive for her. But her final moments showed a woman far more sure of herself, even if in the most tragic of dimensions. As she sang her final aria, she sang it not to Turandot, but to Calaf, her love for him ever present in her furtive glance. It was impossible not to choke up at the moment of her death, undeniably the intimate heart and soul of the opera.

James Morris' voice gave Timur a rugged and ailing dimension, his denunciation of the others on the phrase "Ah! Delitto orrendo!" as visceral a cry of pain as you will ever hear in any opera. Mark Schowalter provided a vocal counterpoint to Morris' King by singing the role of the Emperor with a more even sound. Dwayne Croft, Tony Stevenson and Eduardo Valdes rounded out the cast as the comic trio of Ping Pong Pang and were quite formidable in their lone scene at the start of the second act, moving about in lockstep. They moved from one emotional extreme to the other quite well, creating a wistfulness in this tense opera.

Paolo Carignani navigated the tough passages of the opera quite well though there were moments where he seemed a bit out of sync with his singers. This was most notable in "Non Piangere Liu" where his tempi seemed too slow for Alvarez. The conductor struggled to match up with his singer for a while and when it came for Gerzmava's slight interjection, the soprano also seemed a bit lost. Carignani found his way in time for the epic choral finish of the passage. He was far more assured in the second act, particularly in the riddle scene with the orchestra showering the singers with sound; at times the sound was so dominant and potent that it threatened to completely overpower the singers, but the cast members were up to the task and seemed unphased.

A word about Franco Zeffirrelli's famed production. This is deemed one of the untouchable productions of the Met (and for good reason) even if some find it overly lavish in size and detail. However this is not just style with no substance. Despite the fact that Zeffirrelli aims to recreate ancient China in all its splendor, he does not simply pack the stage with imagery and have his characters parked on stage for no good reason. Everything has a purpose and everything is constantly in dramatic motion. One particularly striking example came in Act 1 at the very beginning. Calaf has just reunited with his father and Liu and the three walk off stage, leaving the chorus to sing two very contrasting passages. The first lashes out with people's appetite for violence and the second has them in more contemplative mood calling out to the moon to shower them with hope and light. The staging in both could not be more different and yet Zeffirelli (through David Kneuss who directed this revival) and choreographer Chiang Ching could approach them differently. The first one is filled with kinetic energy constantly building in freneticism until every person onstage jumps up with the music's violent syncopations. The moon sequence starts with stillness, then has characters move onstage with lanterns. After this the moon rises, the lighting on stage growing stronger and at the apex of the passage, Turandot's tower rises upstage, a coup de theatre wondrously conceived if there ever was one. These passages were particularly striking when compared with the Met's recent production of "Otello" which opted for completely ignoring the dramatic possibilities of the choral "Fuoco di Gioia" and generally kept the chorus uninvolved dramatically.

The second act starts off with Ping, Pong and Pang's sequence, the stage divided into three (a common theme in the second act) with the colors of red, yellow and green as defined in the libretto. There was one detail in this scene that whether accident or intention ultimately added nuance to the scene. Both Pong and Pang have candles downstage on their respective sides. Pong prepares marriages while Pang prepares funerals and it was interesting to see that Pong's candle was lit while Pang simply could not get the light on. It was a subtle detail but remained a stark reminder for the unification of opposites in this scene. The massive throne room, which drew jubilant applause is a visual marvel, but it too is divided up into visual thirds not only architecturally but in the minutest details. Everywhere you look in this scene, the number three appears whether it be the number of people involved in each step of the ceremony or the tiers of society on display (the emperor, the people involved in the ceremony and then the mob). In the ensuing act, he actually breaks from the rule of three, this best embodied by the architecture in both sets (throne room now has five "towers" instead of the three in the second act). Zeffirelli may simply have been hitting a softball that Puccini has thrown his way, but he does it better than anyone.

"Turandot" offers Met audiences some of the greatest visual, aural and dramatic pleasures they can expect when going to the opera and this cast certainly lives up to that promise in every possible way. Goerke and Alvarez succeed as the polarizing lovers while Gerzmava delivers poignantly as the opera's ultimate heart and soul.