Giacomo Puccini: Turandot (1926)

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.

ACT 2:

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. 

ACT 3:

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.

COMMENTS:

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.  

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5 thoughts on “Giacomo Puccini: Turandot (1926)

  1. Crucifixion? Hardly; something lingering with boiling oil in it!

    Why choose this production, when you could have listened to the Bjorling/Nilsson, the Sutherland/Pavarotti, or watched Zeffirelli’s Met version?

    I agree that the last scene doesn’t really work; until then, everything is Jake (Meyerbeerian grand opera, rather than Puccini). I love the opera’s grandiose imagination, both the music and the dark Chinese fairytale.

    There are a lot more than three great bits – including the riddle scene (Gli enigmi sono tre), In questa reggia, Gira la cote – and Ping, Pang, & Pong.

    I’m not fond of Liu, whose arias drag. More ensembles and choruses, less soprano. Still, an acting singer can make her scenes tolerable!

    Glad you toned your original post down, by the way.

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    1. That is so funny, we like the exact opposite things about this opera!

      Although I hate this opera overall, I could go on all year about what I do and don’t like about it. I guess hatred really is the opposite of love, because I can never be indifferent about this Puccini swan song even if I know I will never love it. So below I RANT incoherently!

      I adore Liu, she is up there with Adriana as one of opera’s loveables! Almost everyone loves Liu so now I am wondering if something is wrong with you and not me! I’ve heard all three of the other recordings/productions you referenced (specifically I own the Sutherland/Pavarotti, I didn’t finish it the first time because I was disgusted with it after Liu’s death, the Chinese people’s droning screams of “Parla! Parla! Il nome! Il nome!” as she dies made me throw up, so I hide the recording in my closet for six months and refused to listen to the end. I have a REALLY BAD relationship with this opera, in spite of the fact that I have heard it from start to finish around three dozen times in multiple productions and recordings!). I honestly would not spend the money for a ticket to see it in person.

      I chose this one for the post because it is the shortest that exists, but believe me I have never changed my mind regardless of the production or recording, I love Liu, PPP is blatant yellow-face, Turandot is a rotten character (and “In questa reggia” sucks eggs musically, I even mock it at home by singing the opening lines because they are within the upper most part of my range, seventy year old sopranos generally have been croaking it out since Sutherland retired), and Calaf is mentally not with it even if he does get two great arias.

      Forman gave “In questa reggia” one star, because that is what it deserves.

      Turandot is actually not a Chinese fairy tale, an Italian invented it based on a 12th century Persian fairy tale set in Central Asia about a Russian princess. The riddle scene (and act 2 in general) is rather dry for me.

      It is true that the opera requires massive chinoiserie production values or it falls instantly flat, but the combination of grandeur and telescoped personalities smells of orientalism to me unlike the grandeur of Les Huguenots. Not that operas have to have European settings, but the depiction of Chinese here is just barbaric. There is a reason why the Chinese government banned it until the late-1990s.

      It really isn’t all that imaginary either, if anything I find it too realistic and bloody, perhaps why I love Liu because she is so believable and selfless, so to see the “lovers” triumphant over her lifeless body is nauseating. It also didn’t help that Puccini himself sabotaged the work by giving Liu one of his greatest characterizations (no one can deny that he obviously LOVED the role, he couldn’t even finish the opera after he killed her off because LIU is the muse of the entire work. She dies, the whole opera dies with her.). The fantasy elements go completely beyond me so instead of looking at Turandot as an allegoric figure, I perceive her as a real woman bent on serial murder in order to mass scale avenge the rape and murder of the ancestress she believes possesses her.

      The finale is not just dramatically bad, it is incredibly morbid and instead of feeling like the end of a fairytale it feels like the end of a bygone era. It being the tail end of the standard Italian rep doesn’t help. Sometimes I’d rather wished Gianni Schicchi filled that role.

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      1. The first two acts are superb, but the third act – even the bits Puccini wrote – are a real anti-climax. (Or ante-climax.)

        The last part of the opera is psychologically unconvincing; they’re Wagnerian erotic maniacs, who’ll sacrifice the world to consummate their love.

        What, though, does Calaf see in Turandot? (a challenge? a riddle?) But the opera does have a happy ending; Liu’s death is the catalyst for thawing Turandot, and she becomes vulnerable and open to love.

        The arias – Liù’s two, even “Nessun Dorma” – are less effective than the big choruses or the riddle scene. Give me spectacle and effects without causes!

        Made you throw up? Really? You obviously have a more visceral reaction to opera; stay away from Adam’s Nixon in China, then!

        Aren’t they all technically yellow-face? And what about, say, non-blacks singing Otello and Aida?

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      2. Actually the choruses and the riddle scene do have cause, my problem is that I find them underwhelming musically and the arias overwhelming. Well, I was 14 the first time I heard Turandot. I was plugged into the Sutherland-Pavarotti-Caballe recording (hard to believe that all three are gone now!) but when I got to “Parla! Parla! Il nome! Il nome!” after Liu stabs herself it just sickened me and I stopped playing the recording after the cortege sequence. I can get very emotional with some operas, particularly Italian ones.

        As far as stage drama is concerned the second act isn’t terrible, I just find it musically dry (the riddle scene consists of six repeated themes that go on in a cycle four times for ten solid minutes). And yes, I do notice that usage of chromatic chords in act 2 and the usage of diatonic chords in act 3 for the similar scene when they are before the emperor.

        It isn’t so much the cultural or racial appropriation that I object to, it is the negative way they are portrayed. After all, wouldn’t Ba-ta-clan be racist then? In act three they offer girls as sex slaves to Calaf in exchange for his name so they can sleep and I’m never really convinced of them being more than a failed attempt at comic filler. Turandot is a flawed masterpiece at best, Puccini really did not have the power to pull off the third act, although I do like the arias, and Liu, a lot more than you do.

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  2. Loved that aria from Nixon in China! The vocal line was amazing, and all the Maoist iconography! Sometimes I wish someone would write an opera in the mid to late 19th century style just to mess with our heads! Maybe even try to pass it off as a 19th century composition. I wonder why no one has bothered given the state of modern opera since circa 1990?

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