Opera in three acts. Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes.
This review is of the 2013 Art Centre-Seoul production (the ending is cut).
ACT 1: Dawn, the Imperial City.
8: Perche tarda la luna? After Puccini subjects us to some blaring Chinoiserie where we are supposed to believe that xylophones are exotic, the Mandarin gives us his background spiel about how Turandot lops off the heads of the poor males stupid enough to ask to marry her and incorrectly answer her three formidable riddles and then we are off into a sea of chorus-arioso-chorus exchanges. Liu comes on with blind old ex-king Timur and conveniently his son shows up and it is family reunion time. The Executioner arrives brandishing his axe like an American ammosexual but this eventually leads to the first grand moment in the opera as the crowd waits for the moon rise ** (not because it is pretty, but because then the Prince of Persia will have his head cut off). Some Korean child actors come on to torture us with their inability to sing in Italian. The Prince of Persia arrives (apparently drugged up on heroin) to await the chop-chop, Calaf takes a perverted interest in the proceedings (this is the Death motif, and it pops in rather a lot). Turandot makes a silent first appearance as the crowd begs for mercy on the Persian and Calaf gags on how “beautiful” the Princess of Darkness is to a harp glissando and a creepy restatement of the Death motif. The Persian prince is executed off-stage as Calaf fantasizes about ringing the gong of death (the sign of a new challenge for the three riddles) and Puccini subjects us to a trio of characters whose very existence as a concept is borderline racist. These are Ping, Pang, and Pong, and they are opera’s one horrible but barely forgivable sin. They try to convince Calaf that Turandot is basically a man-hating (fill in the blank) but they are stopped by the chorus of Turandot’s equally noxious handmaidens who provide some ornery “shut the (blank) up” at the trio. Still they try to stop Calaf from banging the gong.
24: Signor ascolta Liu, who for quite some time now has been keeping mum finally lets out her feelings in a beautiful arioso ** with a vague Chinese-y harmony. It rightly stops the show. She begs him, no gong today, her heart will break.
26: Non piangere Liu Calaf’s response is brief but lovely ** and leads into a climactic finale in which the big dummy bangs the gong and the Ping-Pongers laugh because Death will be happy (more xylophone). Either Timur or Liu collapses depending on the production. An effective if morbid finale.
Scene 1: A Pavilion in the Imperial Palace.
3: Ho una casa This scene was actually added to the original score (which isn’t the one that we have today). The original version of the opera was in two acts with what are now the first two acts being combined and also about half as long as they are now. This entire scene, along with Turandot’s aria in the next scene and the climactic final ensemble in the previous act, was added to the original concept after Puccini had written the original first act, which was then integrated into what are now the first two acts. If you are like me and are already tired of the Trio, this will be of no interest to you at all, but there is a nice bit when they discuss their summer houses in the country * which many people like (celesta, harp, flutes). They take drugs, dance about like pansies, and act like typical early-20th century Yellow-Face comic relief, which is to say little relief at all.
Scene 2: A large Square in the Imperial Palace.
10: Preludio * consists of more military-style Chinoiserie followed by something Sir Denis Forman called “German brass band” music as the Mandarin descends and the chorus goes about its ornery stuff. Those gad-awful Korean kids show up again to do their worst. The Emperor arrives amid stately fanfare and we get a series of very ornery chromatic chords from the orchestra as the chorus chugs away. The Emperor makes an address and we learn in a dialogue between the Emperor and Calaf that the former has been tricked into taking a horrible vow which forces him to condone his daughter’s death-by-riddle competition. The witch shows up and the Mandarin goes into a spiel-repeat, plus the rules (more xylophone), only this time about twice as quickly. The Korean kids torment us and then thankfully quiet down.
19, 24: In questa reggia or son/Mai nessun m’avra Turandot’s first utterance is the most sedately horrific aria in all opera *. It is also the most boring entrance aria of any title character in any opera ever written. It concerns a lot of Chinese history (namely how her ancestress Lou-Ling, whose soul supposedly possesses Turandot’s body) reigned in peace and prosperity until a Siberian warlord came and raped and murdered her in cold blood (a likely story). Now she gets revenge by killing the men who fail to answer her riddles correctly. It is the ultimate croon number for an aged soprano (of which there are FAR too many). It ultimately leads to an argument with Calaf about how many of the riddles have to be answered which leads to a mild explosion from both them and the orchestra *. The riddles themselves are musically dry (as in it is mostly just the timpani doing anything for the longest time. Any case, Calaf gets all the riddles right, which of course enrages Turandot (isn’t she always like this?). Oh, incidentally Liu and Timur are present and things get really antsy with the crowd begging him to answer. To be honest, I’m not sure how anyone would not get these riddles because they are too easy! She goes psychotic (or rather the strings do) on the last riddle.
33: Turandot! Turandot! The finale *, basically everything after Calaf is declared victor, is made increasingly annoying by a series of idiotic plot twists including Turandot’s pathetic plea not to have to give up her V-card and Calaf stupidly offering to let himself get the chop if she can figure out his name by the following dawn (which of course is a challenge that she gleefully accepts). The Chinese people do their pre-Mao bit one more time before the curtain falls on a rather sedate ending. It all makes you want to kill yourself, except maybe the reference to Nessun Dorma.
Scene 1: The palace garden, night.
3: Nessun Dorma After we learn that Turandot has ordered that the people of the city are to be subjected to what grad students call an “all-nighter” unless and until they figure out Calaf’s name, we get the one number in the opera even those of us who think it is otherwise utter garbage have to admit is great ***. I will admit though, at this point I really don’t care about Calaf being victorious, I’d rather have him fail in all honesty because at least then the opera would make some slight sense. The trio from D.W. Griffith Hell show up and offer Calaf any if he will give his name to them. I mean ANYTHING, this includes their own daughters as concubines. The chorus has turned even more psychotic than before with talk of blood and other things that could never be the result of only one sleepless night. Turandot eventually arrives to her annoying theme music. Timur and Liu are brought in to be “questioned” (re: tortured to death in front of Calaf if they don’t give away his name). Liu fatally declares that she alone knows Calaf’s name in a successful attempt at saving her blind master from torture. Calaf goes into a human rights message about the inhumanity Turandot is engaging in by torturing a slave girl.
13: Tanto amore segreto Liu reveals (vaguely) what love is to Turandot in her huge aria *** before she kills herself. Puccini’s characterization of Liu is so utterly amazing that it is one of the unforgivable sins of the work, but it is the one in which the audience can most take pleasure in. This is a woman who is fatally and bitterly in love with a man she could never hope to feel the touch of. And with her death, Puccini killed what made him an opera composer. The horrifying screams of the Chinese as they cry for “Il nome! Il nome!” are not bone chilling enough to mare the effect of this scene. Timur learns she is dead and issues a curse upon whoever caused it (this apparently goes no where). The entire cortege scene is a remarkably self-contained musical drama in itself (helped by the fact that unlike the opera itself, Puccini literally closed the scene almost as if it were THE end).
22: Principessa di morte! And with that the opera ends, or rather it should, but instead we are subjected to (a blessing here) nine minutes of music Puccini wouldn’t have been caught dead writing. Basically Franco Alfano pulls off a “hits of the evening” duet for the two annoying protagonists ala La Boheme although it really isn’t even as good as that *. A nonsense female chorus pops in off-stage as Turandot breaks down and turns into a submissive. Annoying Korean kids croon in the background and Turandot realizes what Calaf’s name is.
Scene 2: Same as Act 2 Scene 2.
30: Amore! O sole! Rather meaningless scene change as Turandot declares that Calaf’s name is “Love” and we get a choral re-hash of Nessun Dorma * as the curtain falls on Italian operatic history.
I am one of those annoying people who lives in a life and death struggle with this opera. It is a combination of a miserable death and brilliant musical immortality. Although it is supposed to be a fairy tale, it is far too life and death and the characters are the wrong combination of too realistic and too unbelievable for it to come off effectively as anything but a combination of gothic verismo and horror opera (thus killing whatever fairy tale effect Carlo Gozzi might have aspired to in writing the original play). The problems are minimally three-fold: One, Liu’s characterization is simply brilliant, possibly Puccini’s best if at least one of the best, and bestowing so much on a secondary character (she steals the show) must leave casting directors with no alternative but to give the title role to some aged soprano who is able to still walk on stage and croak her lines. Two, Ping-Pang-Pong are racist. I don’t need to go into any more detail other than that their pathetic attempt at providing comic relief really doesn’t work and this is actually rather sad because in an opera like this, you sort of want a time to laugh because the action is so horrible. Three, the two main protagonists are either uninteresting or undesirable (except maybe to each other) and this is amplified by the musical partial birth abortion that is the third act. The ending makes no dramatic sense and after the brilliance of Liu’s death scene, it comes off as cheesy and even a bit “Hollywood”. The two main protagonists aren’t remotely likeable: Turandot is a psychotic serial killer and Calaf, to call him borderline is an insult to people with cognitive disabilities of whom I am one. Liu is the only redeeming character, but her death really doesn’t redeem Turandot and the proximity from the suicide of the only likeable character to the fairy-tale wedding ending for the match made in hell is disturbing at best if not puke inducing. The first act has three great numbers (the moon-rise chorus, and the two arias for Liu and Calaf) but the second expands upon Puccini’s irritating chinoiserie (Ping-Pang-Pong) and the riddle scene is marred by being boring and including the worst title-character entrance aria of the standard repertoire. The third act has two great arias (again for Calaf and Liu) and then it all goes to heck when Puccini dies and Alfano….why didn’t they just leave the opera incomplete? Toscanini did the right thing on opening night, if only all conductors would follow his example. I won’t bother with a letter grade, I’m not in the mood and I know OperaScribe will crucify me for writing this.
I really just need to review Henry VIII.