Turandot – The Prince of Tartary raises stupidity to a new height – or should I say depth? But Love (and Puccini) conquers all.

This is the third time in less than a year that I have seen this Zeffirelli production of Turandot on HD, and I want to share with you the change in my reaction to each performance.  Here then, in chronological order, are my reviews written on November 7, November 21, and July 21:

TURANDOT – November 7, 2009
Met HD. CinArts @ Palo Alto Square, CA

Turandot makes her first appearance in Act I of Puccini's "Turandot" at the Metropolitan Opera

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 Calf) 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 my 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.  Calf 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:

  1. Of course he answers the riddles correctly.
  2. She refuses to abide by the terms of her agreement and says, “Please Daddy, don’t make me.”
  3. Daddy tells her that a vow is sacred and she has no choice.
  4. She says, “I’ll never submit willingly; you’ll have to take me by force.”
  5. 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: Li, the faithful slave of Calf’s old and blind father, has proved her humble love for Calf 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 Calf, 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 Li.  And because, “It’s Opera!”

TURANDOT – Revisited. November 18, 2009
Met HD, CinArts @ Palo Alto Square, 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. Calf 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 Calf and the morals of Turandot in my ranting based on the Live HD, 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 Li, 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, Bohme, 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!

Charles Anthony as Turandot's father, the Emperor of China

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”

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

TURANDOT – Third time is magic. July 21, 2010
Met HD. CinArts @ Palo Alto Square, CA


This time I came prepared to swallow the stupidity whole and really give in to the story, the music, and the production.  I accepted not only the unrealistic fact of  “Love-at-first-sight”, but also the fact that it was a form of enchantment – once he saw Turandot’s sneering face, Calf was a gone goose and was no longer responsible for his actions.

It starts with the first ominous chords of the overture – we know immediately that we are in for something exotic, probably set in Asia.  Then the curtain goes up to reveal the first of Zeffirelli’s lavish sets.  It is a moonless night and the stage is in semi-darkness filled with people: soldiers and slaves.  You immediately know the type of society – the slaves are subhuman.  Not even animals, but insects crawling and scurrying close to the ground, keeping close to the darkness.  They have come for the spectacle of seeing the Prince of Persia get his head chopped off and are singing mindlessly calling for the moon to rise so they can enjoy the slaughter.

Antonio Demarco as Executioner

We see the executioner (Antonio Demarco), a hulking giant with bare chest and bulging muscles swinging his great sword and bringing it down viciously to scrape it along the great whetstone.  He is simultaneously warming up his muscles and bringing his instrument to razor-sharp readiness.

The story begins as ancient blind Timur (Samuel Ramey) appears led by the lovely young slave-girl Li (Marina Poplavskaya) as they make their way through the crowd.  He stumbles and falls, she calls for someone to come help her, Calf  (Marcello Giordani) volunteers.  He immediately recognizes that Timur is his long-lost father, the King of Tartary and all is joy in the reunion.

Persia (Sasha Semin) arrives with head held high for easy decapitation, the fickle crowd sees that he is young and handsome and now calls on the Princess to be merciful.  Our first glimpse of Turandot (Maria Guleghina) shows her disdainfully make a chopping motion with her hand.  One glimpse is all Calf needs – “I must have her.”  Everyone tries to dissuade him, Li in the first of her two lovely arias.  No use.  He strides to the great gong and beats it 3 times.  Commitment.

Joshua Hopkins as Ping, Tony Stevenson as Pang, and Eduardo Valdes as Pong sing nostalgically of their gardens

Act II begins with a charming interlude which has nothing to do with the main plot. Ping  (Joshua Hopkins), Pang (Tony Stevenson”), and Pong (Eduardo Valdes) bemoan the fact that every time the gong is struck they have to prepare a party – probably a funeral but they keep hoping for a wedding.  They sing their delightful trio about how they’d rather be home tending their gardens.  Turandot comes on and sings an aria about how her great-something long ago grandmother was raped and killed by a conquering prince.  At this late date she seeks revenge by killing as many would-be-conquering princes as possible – twenty seven and counting. We go through all the riddle routine and the act ends with Turandot having until dawn to find out the stranger’s name.

It’s easy to poke fun at the ridiculous story, but when it is all performed to Puccini’s wonderful and oh-so-apt music with Zeffirelli’s elaborate sets and costumes – my dear, have you seen her hat? – well, it’s an experience worth repeating.

On to Act III with its top-ten aria – Calf’s Nessun Dorma – followed by the moving scene with Li admitting that she is the only one who knows the stranger’s name.  She sings her second lovely aria about how she will submit to torture and death rather than reveal it.  The princess is puzzled by this declaration and asks why.  When Li answers, “Love,” Turandot is shaken for a minute but quickly recovers and orders the torture continued to which Li responds by grabbing a dagger from one of the guards and stabbing herself.  This was definitely the emotional high point of the opera and my eyes responded accordingly.

In my first review above I had a totally wrong view of Calf and what went on in his mind.  I think I have it right now.  In his enchantment, he not only is totally in love with Turandot, but he is convinced that Love’s power is so great that if he can once break down Turandot’s wall of ice, she will love him in return.  He grabs her and kisses her violently and at great length.

In a marvelous bit of acting, Turandot’s eyes open wide and there is a look on her face that says, “Goll-eee!  Wha’ happened?”  Politically Incorrect though it is by today’s standards, she is hooked.  We know it and, more importantly, Calf knows it.  But Turandot tries to resist this new feeling.  She pleads with Calf, “I admit you have won.  Isn’t that admission enough to satisfy your masculine ego?  Please go away – we’ll give you some other kingdom to rule – and let me resume my old status quo.”

And here is where I was so wrong before.  Far from being the stupid oaf I first took him for, Calf shows rare insight and intelligence.  He can force her to act on the revised agreement and marry him.  But if he does, a part of her will always resent him.  “No,” he says to himself, “this is a proud woman and to have the wife I want, I must give her back her pride.”  “My name is Calf, Prince of Tartary,” he tells her.

The power has been given back to Turandot; to the new Turandot.  The old Turandot would have said, “It is not yet dawn; the stranger’s name is Calf; off with his head.” But the new Turandot says instead,  “I know the name of the stranger.  It is . . . Love.”

The Emperor looks down on the happy couple


The Opera Nut

Photos by Marty Sohl/New York Metropolitan Opera

CinArts @ Palo Alto Square
3000 El Camino Real # 6
Palo Alto, CA 94306-2110
(650) 493-3456

This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in sanfranciscosplash.com on July 26, 2010.

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2 Responses to Turandot – The Prince of Tartary raises stupidity to a new height – or should I say depth? But Love (and Puccini) conquers all.

  1. Pingback: Love Conquers All | La Vida Valle

    • philip says:

      Thanks for the plug, Nydia O. I also enjoyed your article. Turandot is quite an opera!

      Half a year later I saw a very different and in some ways even better performance by our small local opera company. You and your readers might also find my review of that production interesting.

      The Opera Nut

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