As promised, this is the latest installment in my ever popular series of Opera reviews, based on the “Met Live in HD” series.
This time, though, not an obscure and little-known work. No, this time it’s a huge blockbuster work by superstar Italian composer Giacomo Puccini. Turandot was Puccini’s last composition, and it wasn’t even fully completed when he died, but it certainly is his most exotic and epic work. Also one of the crowd favorites, and for very good reason: It’s really good.
Exotic Sets and Oriental Chorus
As the Met program notes point out, the current production, designed by Franco Zeffirelli, dates back to 1987. Zeffirelli was, of course, a proponent of simple costumes and minimalistic sets (…) — just kidding! The lavish and complex sets and gorgeous costumes are Grade A Eye Candy — and I also liked the tumblers and acrobats in the beginning, all established to put on display the wealth and power of the Chinese Empire. Only thing lacking was an elephant cortege (maybe they could have borrowed one from “Aida”) to carry the Princess Turandot out to meet her latest suitor. All of this extravagance serves an artistic purpose: The audience must buy into the notion that this Emperor and his bratty daughter are world super-powers who can literally do whatever they please — including chopping the head off the Prince of Persia. Which was very nicely done, by the way, and in the “glimpse backstage” during the intermission, we were shown one of the stagehands calling out: “Gimme that Persian guy’s head on a stick!”
If I had one criticism, it would be the mimes with their excessive fussiness. In this production, dancers, or mimes, or whatever they are, are always there in every scene, fussily waving their fans and ribbons and the like, as if to egg on the music with extraneous gestures. Sometimes I found this distracting and wished they would just stop. After all, Puccini’s music is so gorgeous that it really doesn’t need mimes to underscore the highlights.
As music critics have pointed out many times, this particular opera is more about the choruses than the individual arias, great though they are. Sometimes, if you close your eyes, you almost think you are listening to Russian opera, in the lilting orientality of the melodies and choral harmonies. There are mucho Wagnerian influences as well. And the supposedly “Chinese” (in quotes) heroine even resembles a Wagnerian heroine. I have seen many Turandots before, but I never actually put that together before in my head. Maybe because it is Nina Stemme this time singing the heroine; and Nina is best known for her Wagnerian roles such as Brünnhilde and Isolde. The role of Turandot certainly requires massive vocal pipes, especially to belt out those high notes. And Nina delivered everything she needed to.
As the Met program notes point out, Puccini based his “Chinese” opera loosely on a play by 18th-century Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi. Gozzi’s play was in the style of Commedia dell’arte, a genre which, with its emphasis on “types” and “roles” of characters, exerted enormous influence on Italian opera, indeed on Western culture itself. Very strong traces of this can be seen in Puccini’s comic characters Ping, Pang and Pong. These three ethnic stereotypes and prancing Harlequins form the dramatic backbone of the story. As Ministers of State, involuntarily serving a ruling dynasty which they intensely dislike, they comment sarcastically on everything that goes on and insert their own opinions and thoughts into every plot point.
Carlo Gozzi had used some source material dating back to a 12th century work by a Persian poet named Nizami. Nizami had woven a fairytale story about a princess named “Turan-Dokht”, which in Persian means “Daughter of Turan”. This is obviously not an ethnic Chinese name. In other sources, “Turan” is said to derive from something like “Turkoman”. In other words, Turan-dot and her father the Emperor were not ethnic Chinese, probably they were rulers of a Turkic tribe who conquered China and then transformed themselves into the Imperial dynasty. Hints of this in Puccini’s opera consist of Ping-Pang-Pong complaining about newcomers/usurpers, and comparing this to the “good old day” when, presumably, ethnic Han Emperors ruled over their own Imperial City.
The stranger who arrives in town, Calaf Son of Timur, is also not ethnic Chinese. The name Timur is suggestive he is possibly of Mongolian origin. Calaf’s backstory is actually similar to Turandot’s herself: Calaf is an exiled Prince, his father Timur was defeated and driven out by some other tribe, possibly Chinese, possibly not. Whereas Turandot tells a similar story, involving one of her ancestors, of war, defeat, and usurpation.
All of this speaks of violent times, turbulance, tribal fighting and conquest. And yet a running thread is the continuity of the Chinese Empire itself, and the power of the royal dynasty. He who conquers the Imperial City of Peking makes himself the Emperor and moves into the Imperial Court. The Emperor, regardless of his origins, is always a God and always rules, he is the glue that holds the glorious Empire together.
In the backstory, King Timur has been conquered. Old and blind, he flees into exile, accompanied only by his faithful servant girl Liu. Somehow he has gotten separated from his son, Prince Calaf, but then fortuitously the three meet up again, in the Imperial City of Peking. By chance, on the day when Princess Turandot is set to execute her latest suitor, the Prince of Persia.
Barely has he reunited with Timur and Liu, when Calaf gets a glimpse of Princess Turandot. He falls madly in love at first sight, much to the horror of his dad; and to the disappointment of Liu, who secretly had a crush on Calaf for many years. But Liu knows her place in society: She knows that her love for Calaf is hopeless and improper.
It is explained to Calaf what it entails to seek Princess Turandot’s hand in marriage: The suitor is required to correctly answer three riddles. There is no partial credit in this test. If he gets even one question wrong, then they chop off his head. So far, as Ping-Pang-Pong point out, she has already executed 14 suitors, just in this past year.
But Calaf doesn’t care. He is so ablaze with love, his hormones are just running wild, ignoring all good advice he grabs the mallet and bangs the gong three times: The signal that he is ready for the Ice Princess Challenge.
Why She Is What She Is
Although Turandot never got to sing a note in Act I, she more than makes up for it in Act II. This is said to be one of the most arduous challenges for a dramatic soprano. First she has to belt out her philosophy, and then immediately followed by the famous Riddle Scene.
Turandot explains to her new suitor why she is a man-hater: It’s not like she is a lesbian, or anything like that, but many many centuries ago, an ancestress of hers was captured in war, raped and murdered by the conqueror. For centuries the woman’s ghost cried out for vengeance, but nobody listened to it. Until finally, the ghost was able to settle inside her descendant, Turandot’s soul. In order to avenge the ghost, Turandot swore that she would never marry. But this was a difficult decision, given that she is a Princess; that her father the Emperor does not seem to have a male heir, and that the suitors just keep flocking in like lemmings. The only way that Turandot can “remove the sausage“, so to speak, is to subject them to impossible riddles, and then kill them. For some reason her dad, the Emperor, is okay with this approach.
(And by the way, this “ghost” excuse is not as outlandish as it sounds, if one accepts the fact that many Chinese people believe in ghosts. Namely, that they literally exist and must be appeased.)
Riddle Me This, Handsome Stranger
In many fairy tales, the hero must pass physical challenges in order to get the girl — like slaying a dragon, running through a wall of fire, that sort of thing. In the German national saga, Nibelungenlied, Siegfried has to challenge Brünhild, the girl herself, to three feats of athletic prowess: javelin-tossing, boulder-throwing, and the high jump. But it is not completely unknown for a hero to have to take on a more intellectual challenge. Oedipus, for example, had to solve a riddle.*
*Just for the record, the Riddle of the Sphinx was this: “What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?”**
**Correct answer: Oedipus answered: “Man: as an infant, he crawls on all fours; as an adult, he walks on two legs and; in old age, he uses a walking stick”.
Prince Timur has a harder challenge than Oedipus, because he has to solve three riddles. Now, it is not really made clear, if ALL of Turandot’s suitors have to solve the same riddles, or if they mix it up, with different riddles each time. We, the viewers, are shown how members of the Imperial Court carry in procession great golden baskets, in which are contained the solutions to the riddles. But here, for the record, are Calaf’s three riddles, along with — SPOILER ALERT! — the crib to the answers.
“Nella cupa notte
vola un fantasma iridescente.
Sale e dispiega l’ale
sulla nera infinita umanità!
Tutto il mondo l’invoca
e tutto il mondo l’implora!
ma il fantasma sparisce con l’aurora
per rinascere nel cuore!
ed ogni notte nasce
ed ogni giorno muore!”
IL PRINCIPE IGNOTO
Rinasce e in esultanza
mi porta via con sé, Turandot,
Q: “Why did the turtle cross the road?”
A: “Because the chicken was on his lunch break.”
“Guizza al pari di fiamma,
e non è fiamma!
È talvolta delirio!
È febbre d’impeto e ardore!
L’inerzia lo tramuta in un languore!
Se ti perdi o trapassi,
Se sogni la conquista, avvampa!
Ha una voce che trepido tu ascolti,
e del tramonto il vivido baglior!”
IL PRINCIPE IGNOTO
Avvampa e insieme langue,
se tu mi guardi,
Q: “How did the Italian chef die?”
A: “Nobody knows. He just pasta way.”
(Program note: While Calaf answered the first two riddles seamlessly, the third one gave him difficulty. He really struggled with it. He wanted to phone his lifeline, but unfortunately the rules did not permit it. And he probably would have failed and lost his head, had not Turandot herself given him a visual clue by gesturing towards herself!)
“Gelo che ti dà foco
e dal tuo foco più gelo prende!
Candida ed oscura!
Se libero ti vuol,
ti fa più servo!
Se per servo t’accetta,
ti fa Re!”
Ti sbianca la paura!
E ti senti perduto!
Su, straniero, il gelo
che da foco, che cos’è?”
IL PRINCIPE IGNOTO (balza in piedi, esclama)
“La mia vittoria ormai
t’ha data a me!
Il mio fuoco ti sgela:
Q: “What is the frost that gives off fire?”
A: “It’s YOU, babe!”
First Denial, Then Bargaining
So, I am running out of time, I can’t be late for work, so I have to just rush through the rest of the plot.
Even after Calaf wins her hand, fair and square, by answering the riddles, Turandot still refuses to marry him. By this point, even her indulgent dad, the Emperor, is getting tired of her antics. “The law is the law,” he declaims imperiously. “You must marry the stranger.”
Then the besotted Calaf tosses her a bone: Turandot still doesn’t know his name. In fact, technically, none of us knows his name. We only know that his name is “Calaf”, because we read it in the program notes. So, the “Unknown Prince” tells Turandot, that if she can guess his name before dawn, then he will forfeit his own head. Otherwise, the wedding is on.
Again, this is reminiscent of several other fairytale genres. Wagner’s “Lohengrin” springs to mind. It is a common fairytale meme that the bride is supposed to just marry her fiance without being curious about his name or questioning his origins.
And this is the part of the opera where the tenor, Calaf, gets to sing that huge showstopper aria, “Nessun Dorma” (“Nobody shall sleep”). In which he declares his intention to be victorious and win Turandot’s love. Here is the incomparable Plácido Domingo, from an earlier verison of this same production:
Meanwhile, Turandot has the whole night ahead of her, to figure out her fiance’s name. And she uses every brutal means at her disposal, including arresting and torturing her own subjects. But nobody knows who this guy is. Nobody except for … you guessed it! Timur and Liu.
The torture scene always bothered me. Turandot has Liu tortured right in front of Calaf. Liu, the ever-loyal servant, holds firm until the end, refusing to give her Calaf’s name. And Calaf just stands and watches. I always felt he should rush foward with, “Get your damned dirty paws off my servant girl, you bitch! Okay, okay, I’ll tell you my name, if you just leave her alone!”
In this production, the role of Liu was performed by amazing Romanian soprano Anita Hartig. Anita is young, cute, adorable, and often performs these “thankless” roles. A couple of seasons back I saw her in a similarly fifth-wheel role of Micaela in “Carmen”, and I think she was the first Micaela I saw who really convinced me that this woman even belonged in the story. At least, in “Carmen”, Micaela survives to tell of her ordeal. Whereas Liu actually commits suicide in order to prevent herself from giving away Calaf’s secret. In order to help the man whom she secretly loves, marry the cold bitch who is torturing her. I think Liu absolutely takes the prize for “Most Self-Sacrificing Female in Operatic History”. Or indeed in all of literary history. Only Ponchielli’s La Gioconda and Victor Hugo’s Éponine even comes close, and even that latter girl died at the hands of the Republican Guard, not being viciously tortured by her romantic rival, Cosette!
Anyhow, Liu dies, but her death is a catalyst for Turandot. Before dying, Liu tells the Ice Princess that she dies for “Love”. A concept previously unknown to Turandot.
And now things move quickly. Turandot is starting to fall in lust with the handsome stranger, but she is fearful of what marriage means. A loss of her independence. Her power to torture and lash people at will. Again, like Wagner’s Brünnhilde at the end of Act III of Siegfried, the heroine loves, but is afraid to have sex with the hero. The loss of her virginity will means the loss of her power. “I am defeated,” Turandot whines to Calaf.
And once again, Calaf tosses her an undeserved bone: It’s not yet dawn, but he tells her his true name: Calaf Son of Timur. With that information, she could still have him executed. But she doesn’t. Turning to her father, she declares radiantly: “I now know the stranger’s name. His name is LOVE.” And Emperor Dad just sort of rolls his eyes, and says, “Then let the wedding proceed.” As if to say, “This chump deserves what he won.” At this point, I almost thought the Emperor-God should just morph into the Mikado and start prancing around while singing, “Let the punishment fit the crime.”
In conclusion: A wonderful production, I truly enjoyed it. I just wish that Calaf’s father Timur could have been among the wedding guests. I mean, he is the father of the groom, after all…. Well, that’s just me, and I ALWAYS cry at weddings!