Turandot


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Puccini: TURANDOT

Composer: Giacomo Puccini

Completed by Franco Alfano

Libretto: Giuseppe Adami & Renato Simoni 

Based on a play by Carlo Gozzi

First performed: Teatro all Scala, Milan, 1926

Present Company: Metropolitan Opera, 2009

Production & Set Design: Franco Zeffirelli

Stage Director: David Kneuss

Costume Designer: Anna Anni & Dada Saligeri

Lighting Designer: Gil Wechsler

Video Director: Ángel Luis Ramírez

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus

Conductor: Andris Nelsons

 

Cast:

Turandot: Maria Guleghina

Calaf: Marcello Giordano

Liù: Marina Poplavsaya

Timur: Samuel Ramey

Ping: Joshua Hopkins

Pang: Tony Stevenson

Pong: Eduardo Valdes

Emperor: Charles Anthony

 

Specs:

Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-25

Opera: ca. 20 GB

Bit Rate: Low~Moderate (13~22 Mbps)

Italian DTS-HD MA 5.1

Italian LPCM 2.0 stereo

Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish & Chinese

Opera runtime: 129 minutes (incl intro + intermission)

Region: All

Decca, 2011

 

Grade

Conception & Staging: C

Costumes: A

Casting: A

Singing: A-

Orchestra: A-

Music Direction: C

Video Direction: B

Image: A-

Audio: B+

Extras Features: B-

Recommendation: B


 

Introduction

Turandot was Puccini’s final opera, left unfinished at his death of heart failure in 1924. Puccini was fond of stories set in foreign lands: Madama Butterfly (Japan) and La fanciulla del West (the American West) come readily to mind. He enjoyed experimenting with the melodic, harmonic and instrumental colorings and possibilities of these settings, to say nothing of their expected return at the box office. Turandot takes place in China, and in remote China at that. The title is the name of the local Princess; Puccini’s text is largely based on a mid-eighteenth century play of the same name by Carlo Gozzi; the original story is the work of the venerated 12th century Persian poet, Nizami Ganjavi.


            

 

Puccini had completed all but the final duet between Turandot and Calaf and denouement. The composer left sketches, some in piano score, and there were yet some decisions to make regarding the libretto. There was also the matter of who would carry out the final realization. The composer had wanted one person; his son, another. And there were other composers who applied for the job. Finally, a respected composer and pianist, Franco Alfano, was settled on, but even his completed score was never performed exactly. At the opera’s premier, Arturo Toscanini laid down his baton after Liú’s final aria, death and subsequent funeral music, saying more or less: That’s all he wrote.  The Puccini family had their way eventually and Alfano was given the go ahead. Still not done with the matter, opera companies would make changes, and various composers have had a crack at it until practically yesterday. In fact, Alfano’s original ending, which Toscanini felt was too long, was cut to shreds and performed that way for decades; Alfano’s original reconstruction was not performed until late into the last century. Given the extent of tampering, it’s amazing that the opera comes off at all.


            

 

The Story

The Emperor, Turandot’s father, is getting old and his daughter remains unmarried, which appears to be her intention. The law of the land is that any man aspiring to marry the Princess must first answer three riddles. If successful, he gets the girl; if not, he loses his head. We witness just such a misfire in the first act as the Prince of Persia is executed for his temerity.  Dressed in ragged clothes, Calaf, the son of Timur, a deposed king of another land, appears on stage.  Timur, now old and blind, is traveling together with his slave girl, Liú. The three are reunited briefly only to see Calaf beguiled by Turandot’s beauty. Calaf declares he must have her despite the risk. The royal minsters, Ping, Pang and Pong (honest!), think he’s crazy to consider such an adventure and chide him accordingly. Timur and Liú, who has long had a secret crush on the prince, are heartbroken that, long separated from Calaf, they are reunited only to lose him to so vain and foolish a quest. Calaf strikes the gong that declares his intention to respond to the riddles and seal his fate as a headless man.


            

 

The second act, which at first blush strikes us as a bit anticlimactic, arrives at the challenge and reply itself: We can feel Turandot’s blood rise as she poses each of the three riddles, anticipating another head rolling. But a backstory is revealed that places a different complexion on things: Turandot is no mere bloodthirsty tyrant, though she is that, striking fear into the heart of every man and woman in the kingdom. She sees herself as avenging the death of a princess of ages past, a woman who gave herself to a foreign prince only to be murdered by him. Denouncing love, Turandot has taken her stand to its logical conclusion: to stamp out ardor at her end of the candle and decapitate ardor at the other. Only thus can she remain safe. A brilliant plan, providing no one answers the riddles – which, we assume, are of her devising.

 

But Calaf seems up to the task. He is, after all, the tenor.  “What is born each night and dies each dawn?" she asks.  Speranza – "Hope," he replies.  "What flickers red and warm like a flame, but is not fire?" Sangue – "Blood.” Again, correct. Turandot is shaken but not stirred. However, the third riddle thins Calaf’s blood and weakens his hope: "What is ice that sets you on fire and which your fire freezes still more?" Calaf hesitates, uncertain, when the princess unconsciously provides the needed clue by rephrasing the question in a taunt: "What is the ice that makes you burn?" "It is Turandot!” he replies.


            

 

Calaf could take Turandot then and there as mandated by imperial edict but he is determined to defrost her and not take her by force, which, as he realizes, would only confirm her worst fears. He offers her a way out: If the princess can guess his name before daybreak he will offer his head; otherwise she must marry him. She threatens torture of Timur to give up his name but Liú insists that only she knows it and falls on a dagger to ensure her silence. Little by little, the princess warms to him, but it is not until Calaf reveals himself to her in a fit of trust that the moment of truth arrives. The stage goes black. As the curtain rises again, Calaf, expecting the worst, bows before the court as Turandot declares that she, at last, knows his real name: “It is . . .  Love!” A throat catching moment if ever there was one.

 

Turandot remains a staple of the operatic repertoire despite and because of the expense required to mount it. That’s often the good and bad news about the experience of seeing it on stage. I haven’t fully made my mind up about Liú, who seems to me both too strong and too weak a character in this story. Puccini doesn’t help matters by giving her the two best arias in the opera, thus triangulating her character in the minds of the audience. As may be, Liú is not a real threat to either Calaf’s obsessive interest in the princess or Turandot herself, but rather her purpose is twofold: [a] to suggest depth to the character of Calaf, who, until the third act, behaves like a conceited hothead, and [b] to help thaw the princess by giving her life for him. Liú upstages the title character at every turn, making it difficult for the audience to know whose side to take. Only a consummate actress can breathe life into the princess, who is more a cipher than a real person, more fable then flesh and blood. Few singers can connect the dots and complete the picture required. Fortunately Maria Guleghina is one such person.


            

 

My one puzzlement about the libretto relates to the setup itself: For Calaf to challenge Turandot to guess his name at the close of the second act, it must be that he has not disclosed his identity to this point. In fact, early on he implores Timur and Liú not to reveal his – or their – identity to anyone. So it would appear that “any man” - not necessarily another prince – could apply for Turandot’s hand, which flies in the face of every tale of this sort I know. Furthermore, if anyone can make the challenge, why aren’t there daily applications by this or that poor sod from the downtrodden masses. No, the applicant, in my opinion, has to be a prince. Of course, if that were the case, there would be no third act, because Calaf would have had to present his papers upon striking the gong. A nagging point for me that doesn’t seem to bother most folks, and which the librettist distracts us from by giving something for Turandot to chew on and grow from in the final act.


            

 

Production

Turandot is grand opera in the extreme. It demands extravagance of sets and costume, and usually gets it. The more money an opera company has at its disposal the more audiences expect their imagined story to be manifest on stage.  The name of Franco Zeffirelli is known in this country primarily as the director of the film adaptations of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew in 1967 with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and Romeo and Juliet in 1968 with relatively unknown actors approximating the true ages of the protagonists. But internationally he has made his mark in other areas, not least as a stage designer and director of opera, going back to the 1950s with Maria Callas. Since then he has designed a number of productions for the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, the Paris Opera, and the Metropolitan Opera. The present production of a couple decades ago is a scaled down version of one he produced at La Scala a little earlier.


            

 

Not to put too fine a point on it, I don’t care for the result much at all. All too often and for extended periods, Zeffirelli’s stage is populated by more people than there are angels that can dance on the head of a pin. At other times, Gil Wechsler lights his stage so darkly you can hardly see anything. If such dim light is supposed to be taken as naturalistic, then how do we explain the placement of the masses sitting at the edge of court? No tyrannical regime in its right mind would permit it and no group of downtrodden masses would sit quietly and well-behaved without hordes of armed guards in attendance. Add to this an incessant waving about of arms and banners, punctuating every royal utterance. Pass the butter – wave a banner. Early in the first act people appear to be bumping into one another. They’re not, but the telephoto lens foreshortens the stage, making movement on stage without purpose.  Speaking of movement, who are those men sneakily crawling about the set at the start of the third act, and what are they about? Are they supposed to be rebels waiting for the right moment to strike? Are they seeking answers to Calaf’s riddle? Are they cats in men’s clothes?


            

 

To its credit, there is the expected opulence beyond decency in contrast with the grey of the masses. Every courtier and entertainer (that’s not quite what they are, but what else!) is dressed in immaculate shades of ivory. Turandot’s powder blue costume is jaw-droppingly beautiful and in perfect contrast to everything else on stage. On yet another hand, Calaf’s clothes, especially his pants, fail to suggest antiquity of any time or place. Ping, Pang and Pong are often ornately and colorfully costumed, as befits their rank. Their masks have astonishing impact, a real highlight of the production. When not at court they are just one of the guys, but neatly done up. Timur looks pretty old and equally blind. Poor Liú must be toast in all those warm layers.


            

 

The Music

Speaking of opulence, Puccini’s score for Turandot is perhaps his most exotic, sensual and magisterial. Structurally, he borrows from Tosca in some interesting way, which I shall get to later.  While most of the opera is sung through, interrupting the flow only a few times for the chorus and a wonderful trio for Ping, Pang and Pong and two passionate arias each for Liú and Calaf in the first and third acts, curiously, the title character is not afforded similar music. Her music is largely declaimed and, in the final act, more shared than sung. Puccini agonized about the melody that would finally breathe life and love into her character but he died before he could find it. In any case, she could never be confused with Liú. The three ministers are all given considerable musical space and occupy the entirety of the first scene of the second act.

 

Despite the Puccini/Alfano divide, I found this not to be of particular concern. In fact, I felt the last act to be the best of three in terms of performance, and the duet between Calaf and Turandot its dramatic highlight. The two arias sung by Marina Poplavsaya are so beautifully sung that it throws the musical drama out of balance; by contrast, this explains why the final duet works as well as it does. By the way, I use the term “duet” in a different sense than Rodolfo and Mimi’s first act exchange or the post marital bliss of Cio-Cio San and Pinkerton. As Alfano works it out, the music for Calaf and the princess is less an exchange of arias, as it has been up this point with others, and more a musical melting of resistance on the part of the princess and a softening of Calaf’s arrogance.


            

 

Performance

Of the principals, only Marcello Giordano’s Calaf is not up to the task. He presses, sometimes to the point of yelling, and support is not always there. On recording his voice has a hollowness to it that further exacerbates the problem. He’s a decent enough actor, though we don’t really see him at his best until the final act in the final duet. Marina Poplavsaya makes for an exquisite Liù, her two pleading arias touching and pwerful in their projection of vulnerability and love. She has some softly sung high notes reminiscent of Caballé. Samuel Ramey is convincing as the blind, deposed king. Curiously he finds inner support his character was missing once Liù was dead and he he had but himself to lean on. (There’s a lesson in there.) Joshua Hopkins’s Ping was by turns wistful, authoritative and comical. Not the best I’ve heard in the role, but satisfying. Pang: Tony Stevenson, or was it Pong: Eduardo Valdes? I can never be sure, less confident but no disgrace.


            

 

This leaves the title role of the princess and Ukrainian soprano Maria Guleghina, who strikes me as especially suited for this role in that it relies more on dramatic ability than technique and beauty of tone. Like her character, she gets better vocally as she warms up. I suspect it’s not all that clear what a lady is supposed to make of her character when she remains figuratively or actually behind a curtain for most of the first act, coming out with little more to say “Off with their heads!” In the second act she declaims, reacts and protests, but doesn’t do much in the way of singing. It is in the final act, in the music that Puccini didn’t complete, that the character either comes to musical life or doesn’t. I thought she did and was rooting for her. Neither Ms Guleghina nor her Turandot disappointed except only that her Italian enunciation leaves a little something to be desired - especially when she swallows a chunk of her final ecstatic line: Il suo nome è. . . Amor!


            

 

But then, there is the lamentable conducting of Andris Nelsons who holds passion and dynamic tension in check as if in fear that there will an actual head lopping on stage. His pacing is slow to the point of turgidity, climaxes building only for majesterial effect, but without much insight into their meaning. The finale to the first act, starting with Calaf’s reply to Liù, Non pinagere Liù, has its template at the same place in Tosca, beginning with Scarpia’s Va, Tosca and culminating with chorus, soloists and full orchestra, aided by the organ of the church. In Turandot, the gong takes the place of the organ, dramatically speaking, providing appropriate counterpoint to the determination of the protagonists. Bury the organ or the gong, or failing to understand how they generate fear and anticipation for the character in the spotlight at that moment, and you miss the point, as Nelsons does time and again. He succeeds well enough as accompanist, though often as not, failing to shed light into the orchestral texture; and when the orchestra is on center stage so to speak, he lets go of the tension. This evident right from the opening chords of the opera which, I feel, should have the same impact as the opening of Tosca, each associated with the terrors of a police state. How Nelsons blows off all that implied energy passes understanding! Not satisfied, the conductor pisses away the opportunity that Zubin Mehta in his 1973 recording for Decca makes evident: that Turandot’s final declaration of love is not merely echoed, but completed by the people.


            

 

Video & Image

Decca squeezes the two-hour opera onto a BD-25 using a lowish bitrate. I see no untoward artifacts as a result. If anything, the image is a trifle soft, but resolution and sharpness is adequate sort out details on stage. A not inconsiderable part of the action of the first and last acts are lit very dimly and, together with mostly dull costumes and dark faces, the picture is subtle at best. Video direction, as is typical for Met HD broadcasts is very show-offy, with lots of pans, some very slow, and overhead shots, some without dramatic meaning or impact. Frankly I don’t envy the job of the video director in trying to sort out how to frame the action since there is so much of it at the periphery in the well-lit scenes and so little in the dark. As previously noted, there is at least one troubling sequence where Zefferelli makes a hubbub of the stage action but to no apparent point.


            

 

Audio

Decca offers both the usual uncompressed 5.1 surround and stereo mixes, the latter with somewhat more focus, but not enough to save Nelsons sluggish way with the music. Choruses remain fat but lacking sensuality. Soloists are well enough drawn, though there is a pervading whiteness to all of their voices. I know it bothers me more than some, but the audience makes its presence felt with lengthy applause to indicate its approval after the big arias.

 

Bonus

Patricia Racette introduces the opera for the Live at the Met broadcast and hosts interviews with Maria Guleghina, Marcello Giordano and Charles Anthony during the Act II/III intermission. The accompanying booklet includes a detailed synopsis and an essay about the opera by William Weaver, originally published in the Playbill for the Met.


            

 

Recommendation 

If opulence is your thing then Turandot is your ticket to heaven. The gaudier you want it, the more you’ll like Franco Zefferelli’s production of this fabled tale of Love, Revenge, Pride and Suffering. The costumes at court are delicious, the sets are grand, but the lighting too flat to be dramatically helpful.  I also found the staging to be too busy for its own good. The soloists, except for Marcello Giordano’s Calaf, are good, and get better as the night wears on. Maria Guleghina as the Princess is dramatically convincing and vocally secure, if cool, as perhaps she should be. Marina Poplavsaya’s Liù steals our hearts with achingly beautiful singing. The conducting of Andris Nelsons leaves much to be desired: his orchestra sounds too bored to make anything interesting of the score. Picture and audio quality is satisfactory, with no distracting artifacts even for 1080i, and very little noise in the extended dimly lit scenes. Finally, always with the last word, the Met’s audience just can’t seem to restrain their enthusiasm, interrupting the dramatic and musical flow at end of each aria.


Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

February 14, 2014


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