November 7, 2009
Cinemark, Palo Alto, CA
Well, my opera pace has slowed down a bit. After completing my 5-operas-in-six-days marathon on October 29, I saw only three operas in the next two weeks.
In most Grand Opera the lead male character is fairly stupid – the Prince of Tartary (we don’t know until the last act that his name is Calaf) raises stupidity to a new height (depth?).
In most Grand Opera the lead female character accepts and bemoans her fate — at most she summons up the gumption to commit suicide (Tosca, of course, is a notable and noble exception to this weakness who takes matters into her own dolci mani). Princess Turandot is also an exception, but by no stretch of the imagination could I call her “noble”. She hates men and doesn’t want to ever marry one. But she’s a princess and the only child of the old Emperor — Daddy says you have to marry and you don’t argue with Daddy when he’s an omnipotent Emperor. So she says, “OK, but I’ll only marry a man who can answer three riddles I’ll pose to him — further, any man who tries and fails gets his head cut off.”
The opera itself opens as the Prince of Persia, latest (I forget the exact number but I think is was over 30) victim of this oriental Borgia, is about to be executed. Calaf gets one look at her sneering face as she refuses Persia’s last desperate plea for mercy and falls instantly in total love with this mass-murderess. Act I ends as he strikes the gong to signify that he is putting himself up for decapitation.
Act II has lots of action:
- Of course he answers the riddles correctly.
- She refuses to abide by the terms of her agreement and says, “Please Daddy, don’t make me.”
- Daddy tells her that a vow is sacred and she has no choice.
- She says, “I’ll never submit willingly; you’ll have to take me by force.”
- He says, “Oh, I couldn’t do that. Even though I beat you fair and square at your own rigged game, I’ll give you another chance. Find out my name by tomorrow and not only will I release you from your bargain, but you can cut my head off.” I mean, how stupid can you get?
Well, in Act III he can and does get more stupid — just before sunrise he places himself in her power by telling her his name! Meanwhile Turandot has witnessed an example of true love: Liu, the faithful slave of Calaf’s old and blind father, has proved her humble love for Calaf by submitting to torture and death rather than reveal his name, and this had Turandot puzzled. Before she can figure out what to do with Calaf, he grabs her in his arms and kisses her thoroughly and forcibly. At which point she totally melts and they live happily ever after.
So why, am I going to see it again? Because of the music, of course. And Zeffirelli’s lavish sets and costumes. And the comic relief of Turandot’s ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong. And to feel a bit of sympathy for Liu. And because, “It’s Opera!”
Ciao – – Philip
TURANDOT — Revisited
November 18, 2009
Cinemark, Palo Alto, CA
First, a correction of two small errors. The Prince of Persia was only the 27th victim, not 30-something. And I misremembered the sequence of events in Act III. Calaf doesn’t reveal his name until after the kiss and Turandot’s melt-down. He’s not being stupid here. He knows he has her hooked and so the offer will be refused. It’s just his final proof that love is stronger than hate.
Having thoroughly exhausted my indignation with the intelligence of Calaf and the morals of Turandot in my rantings based on the LiveHD, I entered the theatre last night resolved to simply accept the plot and concentrate on the complexities and beauties of the opera. Of which there were many. The elaborate stages and intricate blocking. The charming trio by Ping, Pang, and Pong at the beginning of Act II. The lovely arias sung by Liu, the real heroine of the opera. And, as always with Puccini, the dramatic appropriateness of the music to the action. It may not pack the emotional wallop of Butterfly, Bohème, or Tosca — but to say that is to praise with faint damns. If they were to schedule it again next year, I would definitely go — twice!
And the interviews were fascinating. I’ll just mention one — the interview with “the Emperor”. This is his 54th year with the Met! He has sung in well over a hundred different productions with almost 3,000 performances. He was ideally cast as the ancient Emperor since a slight quaver in his voice just added to his authenticity. Among his most significant memories was standing next to a young soprano about to make her first entrance onto a Met stage. She was rooted to the floor with stage fright. As our interviewee gently urged her on she raised her eyes to heaven and said, “God, you got me into this. Now help me get out there and sing.” By the way, her name was Leontyne Price. Another memory was of his first Met audition with Rudolph Bing in 1952. When he told Bing his real name, the Director said, “Young man, there is no way you could go on a Met stage with that name.” He said, “OK, I’ll just drop the last name.” To this day he is listed in the program as “Charles Anthony”, but his pay checks are made out to “Charles Anthony Caruso”
Ciao – – Philip
PS I just thought of a good defense for Turandot. She did wonders for the gene pool by taking out those 27 stupid princes.
PPS And then I thought of a counter argument. Since they were all princes they had probably sowed bushels of wild oats before they signed up with Turandot. Oh well. You can’t win ‘em all. – – ph