Giacomo Puccini. Turandot
. 1926. (Last duet and finale by Franco Alfano.) Dir. Garnett Bruce, production & design by David Hockney.
I had a last-minute chance to see this opera with via_ostiense
recently, and it's the best $21 (oh, the vertiginous cheap seats of the War Memorial Opera House) I've spent in a while. Puccini is of course one of the opera greats, but I'd neither seen nor played this opera, and neither the music nor the production disappoint. The music in particular is spectacular, and so were the performances.
The opera is ostensibly set in China, where the eponymous Princess Turandot, remembering the rape of her ancestress, has declared that to win her hand suitors must answer three riddles correctly; to answer wrongly merits instantaneous execution. The opera opens with the execution of the Prince of Persia for his failure, mirrored by the decision of the overthrown prince of the Tartars, Calaf, to succeed where many others have failed.
So, yeah, obviously, there's a lot of scope for Orientalist fail in this opera, but this production largely managed to avoid it, I think--there were a few random dudes in Speedos standing around at points, but apparently the production designer has a penchant for random naked or nearly-naked guys in his productions, so. Also, it's the first time I've ever seen a production of an opera understand that only the emperor gets to wear yellow.
The thing is, this opera isn't actually about China at all. It's based on an 18thC French fairy tale (if you thought to yourself that the plot has shades of The Merchant of Venice
, you're not wrong) and it's refracted through the shattering experience of World War I, with the result that "China" is a multi-layered commentary on Europe, and what Europe has lost (everything), more than anything else. The music reflects this; from the very beginning it's grand, harsh, strident, despairing, damned, and the libretto knows it. There are shades of beauty and humor--the character of Liù, the young slave of Calaf's father Timur, who stays by Timur out of love for Calaf; the trio of Ping, Pang, and Pong, whose costuming in this production aptly reflected their genealogy of commedia dell'arte by way of Peking opera; the soaring glory of Calaf's aria "Nessun dorma" at the beginning of the third act--but the core of the plot is a story about a world that has already suffered an apocalypse, and in which people are simply trying to pick up the pieces. It's no coincidence that the libretto directly equates the beautiful, implacable Turandot with Death at multiple points, or that the dead speak directly to Calaf at times. He doesn't hear them, because he's wandered in from some other century, some other, happier story, and is willfully oblivious.
Puccini died before he could finish the opera; one suspects that there was no way he could resolve his own sentimental desire for a happy ending and the fact that he knew better, viz. the inevitable plot he had already laid down, which culminates in Liù's suicide to save Calaf (handily exposing Calaf not as a noble man in love but as an arrogant ass blinded by his lust for power, and for Turandot). The tacked-on Franco Alfano ending brings the plot to a conclusion only by some unseen deus ex machina, in which Turandot suffers, implausibly, a complete change of heart. One suspects, however, that given how the people of Peking were willing to torture innocent people to save their own skins from Turandot's edicts, that nothing will ever be quite right again, farcical resolution notwithstanding. The tension is irreconcilable, the two parts incommensurable. There's no way to make right what came before, and the future's anything but assured.