the barbarian within
by Douglas Messerli
Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni (libretto, after a play by Carlo Gozzi), Giacomo Puccini (composer), Franco Zeffirelli (stage director), Barbara Willis Sweete (director) Turnadot / 2016 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast]
After seeing the Metropolitan Opera HD Live broadcast of Puccini’s splendiferous Turandot the other day, I joked to my companion Howard, that the mythical Chinese princess reminded me a bit like current Republican candidate Donald Trump. She, too, has built a wall around herself (and metaphorically, her kingdom) in order to keep foreigners out, partly in remembrance of the death of an ancestor brutally killed by an outsider; the world in which she lives, moreover is a highly dangerous one, with dozens of beheadings in the past few years—consisting mostly of her would-be lovers who cannot answer the riddles she keeps posing. Indeed, the opera begins with the death of the handsome Prince of Persia, whose head joins the others on a stake, thus beginning the work with an act as mad as Salome’s beheading of John the Baptist at the end of that opera.
While her court is as glorious as any golden tower, the everyday citizens around her, as clearly demonstrated in the first scenes, live lives of some desperation, and are somewhat confused in what they what out of the life, at first demanding the failed Prince’s beheading, only to change their minds when they glimpse his royal demeanor.
Seemingly by accident, Calàf (Marco Berti) wanders into the city, coincidentally discovering his long-lost father, Timur (Alexander Tsymbalyuk), the now blind, vanquished King of Tartary, accompanied by a poor slave girl, the beautiful Liù (the wonderful young Romanian soprano, Anita Hartig), who is secretly in love with him. But hardly do they get an opportunity to express their joy in seeing each other again, before Calàf catches a glimpse the supposedly beautiful Turnandot (Nina Stemme), immediately falling in love.
Why any sane man might dare make his love known to her, given her nasty reputation, is quite inexplicable. As court organizers Ping, Pang, and Pong soon after try to warn him, any attempt to court the Princess will surely result in his death. But he is not to be dissuaded, even by the pleas of his father and Liù, whose abandonment means that may not be able to escape the cursèd land. By the end the act, the gong is sounded, and seemingly foolish young Prince is summoned to the court.
As anyone who has seen the Met’s production, designed by Franco Zeffelli years ago, will recall, the Court of Turandot and her Emperor father is one of the most startlingly beautiful opera sets ever conceived. With the full court dressed in their finery, and with bands of banner- and-flag-waving humans enacting the formal Chinese-like gestures choreographed by Chiang
Ching, Turandot almost one-ups Aida for its sheer spectacle.
Yet at the heart of this beautiful setting is the mean-spirited and vengeful Turandot, who frightens nearly everyone around her save the hubristic suitor.
One by one Turandot (powerfully sung by Stemme) poses her three questions: “What is born each night and dies each dawn,” “What flickers red and warm like a flame, ye is not a flame?” and “What is like ice but burns?” weaving together the correct answers, “Hope,” “Blood,” and “Turandot,” perhaps secretly expressing the three qualities that her wise suitor would possess: the hope to win Turnadot’s hand, the hot blood behind that desire, and the Princess herself.
But even though Calàf answers all her riddles correctly, the Princess still refuses to be sexually taken, begging her Emperor father for further protection, insisting she will resist the love the stranger openly offers her.
In the Met production Calàf desires desperately to touch her, but grabs hold only of her garment before giving the icy Princess one more out: he has only one question that she must answer, to tell him his name before daybreak; if she succeeds he will abandon himself to death.
In the intermission, Stemme, interestingly argued that it is not that Turandot is sexually frigid, but that she is determined to have a mate who is equal to her in both intelligence and beauty (unfortunately Berti’s sometimes strained tenor could not match her Wagnerian-trained soprano voice.) But even after meeting her intellectual match, she continues to behave like a barbarian within the gates, refusing to allow anyone in the city to sleep until someone will give her suitor’s name, while arresting Timur and Liù and threatening to torture them.
To save both Timur and Calàf, she insists that only she knows his real name, allowing herself to be tortured at the very moment when she challenges Turnadot with own love for the Princess’s suitor, a love, she declares, for which she will gladly give up her life.
Yet, the unbending Turnadot continues in her attempt to get an answer, while Liù, grabbing a knife, kills herself.
In one sense the plot demands that she die, partly because we know that Liù, in her love and faithfulness, perhaps might make a far better match than Turandot. But since Calàf is determined to have the Princess as his bride, the story requires that the weaker give way to the stronger.
It is Liù’s selfless death, however, that finally begins to melt Turnadot’s heart, as she recognizes that, indeed, her suitor is someone special, a man worth being loved. She finally admits that she feared him and fought him so hard because she was attracted to him, and deep within she felt the first fluttering her heart. Impetuously kissing her, Calàf now releases that inner love which suddenly recognizes, weeping for the first time in her life. Daring fate, Calàf reveals his name: the Prince of Tartary.
As the dawn breaks, it appears, for a moment, that Turandot may still use what she now knows against him. But when she appears again in the court she answers the question of his name, by answering “It is love,” clarifying her commitment to him.
Perhaps now her kingdom can free itself from the brutality she has previously imposed, and Ping, Pang, and Pong may return to their country homes for which they so longed at the beginning of Act II.
Los Angeles, February 2, 2016
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (February 2016).
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