This afternoon I saw Turandot, Puccini's last opera. The Zeffirelli staging of Turandot at the Met can only be described as fantastic. There were Chinese dragons, numerous fans, unbelievable costumes and beautiful lighting. The splendor and beauty of the stage was a marked contrast to the sheer cruelty and bloodiness of the opera. In addition, the people of Peking were all dressed in grey and scurried about the stage like rats.
Turandot (sung by Maria Guleghina) is the quintessential ice queen. A princess who has renounced love and men and beheads all suitors if they fail to answer her three riddles. The opera opens with the handsome Prince of Persia walking bravely to his death and Calaf discovering by accident, his blind father King Timur and his servant Liu. Calaf swears that when he sees Turandot he will curse her for her cruelty. When he sees her, as she appears on a lighted dias of gold above the people, he is captivated and proclaims he is in love. Despite the court eunichs Ping, Pang and Pong telling him he is a madman and will die as so many others did and despite an impassioned plea from both his long lost father and his servant, he is not dissuaded and singing about his destiny, he rings the gong, announcing he will be the next suitor. We also see the head of the Prince of Persia being raised on a stake to join the heads of all the other defeated suitors.
The lead tenor Calaf sung beautifully by Marcello Giorani, is often portrayed as hero who risks all to secure the love of the ice queen. Who but the Italians would know of passionate, all consuming love. In this opera however, Calaf is portrayed as a man equally as cruel as Turandot. After correctly answering the riddles and therefore winning Turandot's hand, Calaf foolishly proclaims that if she can find out her name, he will sacrifice his life. Turandot is enraged and proclaims that no one shall sleep that night, nessun dorma...on pain of torture and death until she finds the name of the stranger who won the contest. I had always thought that nessun dorma was a beautiful love aria, but instead it is a deluded song where Calaf is willing to sacrifice all the people in Peking, rather than reveal his name and end the suffering. Calaf is begged by Ping Pang and Pong who bribe him to go away as his very presence will cause the suffering of many, but her refuses citing his love for Turandot.
Turandot's servants bring King Timor and his servant Liu.( sung by Marina Poplavskaya) Liu carried a love in her heart for Calaf and because of that love, will not betray him and reveal his name. Turandot orders that the truth be ripped out of Liu. Lui sings a beautiful aria about the true nature of love. The executioner is called and Liu, rather than reveal the name of Calaf, kills herself. The distraught King takes her dead hand and follows her as she is carried away saying he too will journey with her.
Turandot at this point melts. Many commentators say she melts because she has found love, but it is clear that she does not melt for pity at the blood she has shed but because she knows Calaf has won. Calaf is so often thought of as a brave hero, but by abandoning his blind father and letting the lovely Liu die, he shows himself to be every bit as hard and as icy as Turandot herself.
The opera ends with Turandot and Calaf being married in a splendid scene with masked dancers, coloured banners and, of course, Giacomo Puccini's splendid lyric and dramatic music. Turandot and Calaf were well suited, one blinded by hatred, the other blinded by a deluded sense of destiny. The only sane people in the opera were the comical trio, Ping Pang and Pong who tried their best to dissuade Calaf.
Somehow, I don't think this marriage would last very long, but in the wacky world of opera, all things are possible!
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