Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Garden of Cultural Cachet: Turandot, a fairy tale night at the opera

        I've long thought this opera has a fairy tale plot. So I was happy to find a reviewer of the Metropolitan Opera's current production of "Turandot" who agreed with me, calling it a fairy tale with a dark secret at the center.
            Many folk tales have the notion of fatal choice -- the lady or the tiger -- on which both your happiness and your future hang. In some mythical long ago Chinese empire, the emperor's daughter, the Princess Turandot, has placed her suitors in this interesting, high-risk position: you either win your suit or have your head cut off. The way you win is by answering three riddles correctly. It's like being granted three death-wishes. You know you're in a fairy tale world when everything comes in threes.
            As a dynastic marriage strategy goes, a riddle contest is ridiculous. The only suitors with a chance would be Jeopardy contestant types. Instead, "Turandot" gives us traditional hopefuls such as the Prince of Persia, who sure enough fails the test and for whose ritualized execution the whole city of Peking watching as the first act gets underway.
            Comparison to the plot of "Frozen" can also be made. Turandot is an ice maiden, afraid of her own power, though in this case that power turns out to be the ordinary magic of love and passion. The true challenge our hero has to face (after answering the riddles) is to melt the ice, break the dam, let the natural emotion flow. Our heroic tenor, called Calaf, not only has to play her game, he has to win her love.  
            All I can say, after laying out this fantastical plot is that the music, singing, and dramatic intensity maintained at an operatic fever pitch (with only rare comic releases) makes this Puccini opera one of the most compelling theatrical experiences of any sort that I've experienced. I've seen it before -- but not at the Met.  
            Going to the Metropolitan Opera is not something we get to do often; that's one of the reasons we went. The other is I wanted to see a Turandot at the Met. (La Boehme and some other classics were also being offered this year: meat for the Puccini lover's soul.) The experience did not disappoint. The house was full, the kind of special excitement you seek from a special night was in the air; the Lincoln Center opera house with its plunging vertical architecture, glass walls, and giant chandeliers hanging like diamond necklace draped on the throat of heaven (or on Aphrodite or Andromeda of some other constellated divinity), still holds its visual and atmospheric magic. It was also heartening to find that the crowd consisted not only of the typical aging classical music demographic, but also young couples, married, dating, shacked up, whatever, and groups of friends. No obvious riddles were being posed.
            Since the Met needs a reason to revive classic operas, even those with the popularity and prestige of Puccini's, the production we saw was originally designed by Franco Zeffirelli 30 years ago. The sets were dazzling, literally. So much light was poured on and poured of the silvery imperial court of the second act you almost had to squint to keep your eyes glued to the stage where the riddling contest takes place... after the emperor himself tries in vain to dissuade Calaf from going through with his challenge.
            The downside of a Zeffirelli set design is the thirty-five minute intermission between acts, accompanied by a behind-the-curtain score of carpenters knocking down one version of imperial China and building up a new one.
            It's hard to convey what makes all this work, as it so devastatingly does for those of us who eat it up. I lack the background to describe how the composer's music manages to sound, or rather feel, Chinese without imitating any Asian melodies, and yet still flow from the expanded orchestra like the lushly late romantic bel canto opera it is. It's a music that keeps the cherry trees, pagodas and pristine mountain lakes of its fantasy world in view, while filling the stage-side table with red wine, fettucini, and bellissima.
            Some of the opera's musical high points flow from character development beyond its fairy tale plot. The second soprano role, the peasant girl Liu, explains to Calaf that she has cared for his aging exiled father (like Antigone leading blinded Oedipus from cursed Thebes) because "seigneur, you looked at me once." The evening's first show-stopping aria: Anita Hartig's performance was majorly heart-breaking: pause for lusty group opera-scream. Calaf, blinded by Turandot, is not looking at her now. Still, in what to my ears is an equally moving aria (possibly the most sorrowfully moving proud-man music in the whole Puccini repertoire) he begs Liu to continue caring for his poor last-legs father, if she can possibly bear to, to ease the burden "of one who no longer smiles."
            This is a stop and beat your breast moment as well, but most productions play right through it, as did this one.
            Then we have Liu's two third-act high self-abegnation arias, almost back to back, first in response to Turandot's demand to know how she can bear the suffering in behalf of Calaf. They are torturing her for his secret. The answer, she tells the princess, in a yet another plot pre-figuration, is love. Then her death song (after stabbing herself to keep from spilling Calaf's secret),  followed immediately by Calaf's too-little, too-late lamentation, which is still a heart-grabber in a lower-key funereal tone perfectly judged for effect.
            The character of Liu soaks up the story's pathos, and it's almost hard to see how Turandot can reclaim center stage until Liu leaves it by dying. She's the morally deserving lady. Turandot is a monster, though soprano Nina Stemme humanizes her by a powerful, emotionally convincing performance of her twisted post-traumatic suffering from her country's long-ago conquest and the rape-murder of an ancestral queen. 
             Liu's death at the hands of Turandot's psychosis gives Calaf the psychological power to confront her. "Principessa del morte," he names her accusingly.Turando melts, as the plot requires. We all celebrate the happy ending, all of China, the princess's beleguered emperor-father, the relieved courtiers. After all, they can stop beheading royal suitors. Turandot has surrendered to love.
            I've surrendered to the music. We're left with the show's majestic celestial-salute-theme to the emperor, heaven's son, music more transcendent than any mortal monarch ever deserved.
            I bestow it on the Met. And on Puccini.