Thursday, November 05, 2009

Puccini's Turandot: The Met HD Transmissions Continue


This weekend's opera in the Metropolitan Opera's HD Transmission schedule is Giocamo Puccini's Turandot. This post includes links and other material that might give you some additional background to enjoy the broadcast if you're not already familiar with the opera.

This post is also in conjunction with my class tonight at HACC.

First of all, here are the theaters in Central Pennsylvania that will be showing this Saturday at 1:00 EST: in many theaters, there may be an encore presentation on Wednesday, Nov. 18th at 6:30 (check local listings, as they say).

Susquehanna 14 Harrisburg at 1500 Caughet Drive, Harrisburg PA 17110 (717-526-4981)

The Penn Cinema at 541 Airport Road, Lititz PA 17543

Majestic Theatre at 25 Carlisle Street, Gettysburg PA 17325

For all of my readers outside the area (both of you), you can follow this link to locate other American locations or in Canada and the Rest of the Known World.

If you can't make Saturday's transmission, there is an encore scheduled for Wednesday evening, Nov. 18th, at 6:30pm EST.

There are also two encore broadcasts of Verdi's Aida scheduled for Nov 11th and 12th.

Incidentally, this month, there are two operas being produced by local companies: Capital Opera Harrisburg presents Saint-Saens' Samson & Delilah in November with performances on the 12th, 13th and 14th (all at 7:30) and on Sunday the 15th (at 3pm), all at the auditorium of the William Penn Campus Auditorium. (Last month, it seemed some of the performances were going to be held elsewhere, but their up-dated website now indicates all performances will be taking place at the William Penn Campus.) They will be presenting two one-act operas from Puccini's Il Trittico - Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica - in April, 2010.


Center Stage Opera presents Puccini's Madame Butterfly this month as well with performances the 5th and 7th at 7:30 and 8th at 3pm at Camp Hill United Methodist Church; again Nov. 13th at Hanover's Eichelberger Arts Center and on Nov. 14th at the Women's Club of York on E. Market Street, each at 7:30.

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The Cast for this Saturday's Met broadcast of Turandot includes Maria Guleghina as Turandot; Marina Poplavskaya as Liu; Marcello Giordani as Calaf, the Unknown Prince; and Samuel Ramey as Timur.

Andris Nelsons will be the conductor.


This is the classic production by Franco Zeffirelli – he designed the elaborate sets which were first seen in 1987. The sets have been criticized for being too elaborate, too gaudy and too gigantic, dwarfing the singers and relegating the chorus to actions on the side of the stage. I have never seen this production but many friends of mine who have either loved it or hated it. (When it was first seen, one review mentioned how many thousands of ping pong balls had been used to garnish the sets and costumes, appropriate for an opera with three charatcers named Ping, Pang and Pong...)

Given that the Met is systematically retiring other grand-scale Zeffirelli productions (his La Boheme and Tosca have now been replaced), I'm not sure if this one will survive past late-January when Turandot ends its run this current season.

You can read Anthony Tomassini's review in the New York Times here. After this season's opening performance, he wrote that “Ms. Guleghina sang at the dress rehearsal, but withdrew because of a lingering cold. If Ms. Lindstrom’s performance in the first 'Turandot' of the season was not a 'Star Is Born' triumph, she was dramatically alluring and vocally impressive, winning enthusiastic ovations from the audience.”

Turandot is a huge role even though she's not on stage all that much: basically, she has a walk-on in Act 1 but there's a major aria to sing (“In questa reggia”) and the Riddle Scene in Act 2 Scene 2 (essentially half-way through the opera when she finally does make her dramatic entrance) that demand great singing without much chance to warm up on stage beforehand. As a friend of mine said, “she has to come out and essentially blast you right between the eyes from her entrance.” It's not as easy as it sounds.


Here, you can read the Met's essay about two great spectacles – Verdi's Aida and Puccini's Turandot – complete with photos from the Met's productions. Both are among the grandest of Grand Operas – huge sets, large casts and needing some of the greatest singers around to pull it off.

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The story for the opera originates in one of the tales by the 18th Century Italian writer, Carlo Gozzi, who created a number of works inspired by the characters and conventions of the old Italian Commedia del Arte. His works also inspired writers like E.T.A. Hoffmann (both a famous writer, composer and himself a source for an opera plot in Jacques Offenbach's “Tales of Hoffmann”) and Edgar Allen Poe (who references one of Gozzi's tales in “The Raven”) and supplied stories for operas by Prokofiev (“The Love for Three Oranges”), Hans Werner Henze (“King Stag”) and Richard Wagner's first opera (a long-forgotten thing called “Die Feen” or “The Fairies”) including Puccini's first opera (“Le villi,” about some other evil spirits) as well as his last opera, “Turandot.”


There are actually several settings of “Turandot.” Carl Maria von Weber wrote incidental music for Friedrich Schiller's dramatic adaptation of the story (1809) and Paul Hindemith used some of the pseudo-Chinese tunes Weber used for a movement from his 1943 work, “Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber” (you can hear Weber's “Turandot” Overture and March here; here is a performance recorded in 1947 with Wilhelm Furtw√§ngler and the Berlin Philharmonic. Here is another performance of Hindemith's “Turandot” Scherzo.

Turandot was set by five other opera composers during the 19th Century, including Puccini's own teacher in 1867. Ferruccio Busoni set it in 1917 before Puccini began composing his in 1920 or so.

The story originally came to Gozzi by way of Persia though it originated in China before the days of Marco Polo who wrote about his travels there in the late 13th Century. He recounts a similar tale in which a princess, something of an amazon, would only marry a man who could defeat her in combat.

To summarize Puccini's plot, set in ancient China, Turandot is a princess who has sworn to revenge the rape and murder of her ancestor, the Princess Lo-u-Ling by the invading Tartars: any man who seeks to marry her will be challenged to three riddles and if he fails to answer them correctly, he will be executed and his severed head placed on a spike overlooking the gate to the Imperial Capital of Peking (now Beijing). As the opera opens, the latest prince has just failed his test and is scheduled to be executed at moon-rise. The people of Peking are restless waiting for the execution. There is a stampede and an old man is trampled. He is being helped by his slave-girl, Liu, and then is helped by a stranger.


It turns out the old man is Timur, the former King of the Tartars, wandering in exile. More incredible is the coincidence that the stranger who helps him is his long-lost son, Calaf, also wandering in exile. Liu has stayed by her master out of gratitude and has been in love with Calaf ever since, one day long ago, he had smiled at her in the palace.

The chorus calls for blood as the moon begins to rise. The Prince of Persia is led off to be beheaded. Princess Turandot appears briefly and gives the order to cut off his head. Immediately, Calaf has fallen under Turandot's spell and vows that he will solve the three riddles and win her hand. Timur and Liu try to dissuade him as do three ministers, named Ping, Pang and Pong (they are like clowns straight out of the old Commedia del Arte) but Calaf rushes forward to sound the gong that announces the arrival of another suitor.

In the first scene of Act 2, in a room in the palace, Ping, Pang and Pong commiserate over the fate of China: the old emperor, Altoum, is ineffective as a ruler and Turandot's killing off any available prince interested in marrying her has steeped the country in bloodshed (by various counts, she has killed 13; by others, 99). They dream longingly of their country homes and their own families when the people begin gathering to hear the newest challenger fail to answer the princess' riddles.

In the 2nd scene, set on the steps of the Imperial Palace, the old emperor attempts to dissuade this Unknown Prince from seeking Turandot's hand, but he insists on proceeding. She comes out, sings her aria “In questa reggia” (In this kingdom) explaining her revenge on all men. (You can hear the great Birgit Nilsson, of the great Turandots of the 1960s and '70s, sing the area in a TV concert broadcast, here.)

She then asks him the three riddles:

What is born each night but dies with each dawn?

The prince answers “Hope.” The wise men acknowledge he is correct.

What flickers red like a flame but isn't a flame?

The prince answers “Blood.” Again, he is deemed correct.

What is like ice but burns?

Momentarily stumped, the prince finally answers “Turandot!”

The wise men acknowledge he is indeed correct. The emperor commands his daughter to marry the victorious Unknown Prince. She essentially throws a tantrum but the emperor is stern.

Instead, the Prince offers her a riddle and if she can answer it by sunrise, he will forfeit his life.

Since he is only known as “The Unknown Prince,” he asks her “What is my real name?”

During the 3rd Act, Turandot's ministers and police are trying to find anyone who knows his real name: no one will sleep tonight. In response, the prince sings his aria, “Nessun dorma” in which he is secure of his victory. (This famous aria, the opera's 'greatest hit,' has recently become the Tenor's National Anthem: this performance was recorded at a concert in Los Angeles in 1994 with Luciano Pavarotti.)
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Ping, Pang and Pong try to persuade him to give up and just leave the city, but he refuses.

People have reported he had been seen earlier with the old blind man and his slave-girl. They are arrested and Liu is tortured but she will not reveal his name. Instead, she takes a dagger from one of the soldiers and stabs herself, saying that she would rather die for love rather than betray him. Soldiers carry her body off and old Timur follows her.

Everyone is very moved but still, the answer must be found. Finally, the prince kisses Turandot and then tells her his name: if she chooses to reveal the name, then he will die.

Everyone is once again assembled on the Imperial Steps. Turandot in fact does reveal his true identity: his name is Love. The chorus sings lines from Nessun Dorma and the couple, now happy together, will be married before the Old Emperor.

Gozzi's tale is a little different: there is no Liu – she is an invention of Puccini's, the faithful servant and the “antidote” to Turnadot's iciness. Turandot's servant Adelma is deleted in Puccini's opera: her brother had been one of Turandot's would be suitors and her father declared war on China. Defeated, she was captured and forced to be Turandot's servant. As it happened, she had once been in love with Calaf and recognized him but offers to help him escape from Turandot if he will marry her instead. Calaf is not interested. She's the one who actually tells Turandot the prince's real name: when Calaf goes to stab himself, Adelma takes the dagger from him and tries to stab herself but Turandot intervenes and agrees to the marriage. Calaf implores the old emperor to restore Adelma's lost kingdom which then neatly wraps up the various sub-plots.

One item is left unanswered: when Timur leaves, following the body of Liu, he is never seen or mentioned again. If he is Calaf's father, you would think he would be present at his son's victory. If he had been killed or tortured by Turandot's soldiers, you'd think that would be mentioned. Instead, he just walks off at the end of the scene and disappears. Not a very tidy wrapping-up, there.

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There is one really messy detail, though.

Puccini had become ill while he was working on the opera, diagnosed with throat cancer (he did love his cigars). In 1924, he agreed to have a special new kind of operation involving radiation treatment, then very new, but unfortunately there were complications and he died a few days later of a blood clot which caused a heart attack.

Turandot had been left incomplete and because the illness was not considered “that serious,” the only provision Puccini had made “just in case” was to ask to have Riccardo Zandonai to complete the opera from the 30-some pages of sketches he had made. But Puccini's son disagreed with this, knowing his father had not cared much for Zandonai's music besides not trusting himself to finish it according to the composer's wishes.

After asking Vincenzo Tommassini (who had just finished another opera left incomplete when Arrigo Boito died) and Pietro Mascagni – or they were rejected by Puccini's publisher – it was decided Franco Alfano should be entrusted with the sketches, since he had just completed an opera on an Asian story and his style was very similar to Puccini's in Turandot.

Unfortunately, there wasn't that much to go on. Some of the libretto had not been worked out (Puccini often changed things and added lines) and he was apparently planning on adding a big duet for Calaf and Turandot “like Tristan,” as he had written in the margin. Unfortunately, nobody knew what that meant. It is possible that the loose end with Timur's disappearance might have been solved, too.

He had written to a friend that he needed something big and dramatic to balance the end of Act 2's riddle scene. “It must be a great duet. These two almost superhuman beings descend through love to the level of mankind, and this love must at the end take possession of the whole stage in a great orchestral peroration.”

Instead of a duet, Alfano wrote a three-minute “orchestral peroration” after Calaf kisses Turandot: rather than singing about the change in her feelings, we hear her “melting” in this long interlude but with no “great duet.” The ending seems rather truncated and awkward, unbalanced compared to the 2nd Act's conclusion. Most people felt that Puccini would have done something different than bring in the chorus at the end to reprise some of the music from the tenor's aria, “Nessun dorma.”

As recently as 2001, Italian composer Luciano Berio wrote a completely different ending which is now being used in many new productions (not, as I understand it, by the Met in this production). Friends who've seen it – it's also available on at least one DVD of the opera – say it is immensely superior, both musically and dramatically, to Alfano's solution.


Curiously, at the world premiere, Toscanini, a close-friend of Puccini's and not fond of Alfano's ending, chose to stop the performance at the point where Puccini stopped composing – the music right after's Liu's body is carried off the stage – and turned to the audience and announced, “And here, the maestro put down his pen” (or, as others remember it, “Here, the opera ends because this is where the composer died”).

There are actually two versions of Alfano's ending: before the premiere, Toscanini found the first one insufficient and so Alfano reworked it to create a slightly different one, cutting out a short aria for Turnadot. Though Toscanini never conducted the opera again, other conductors usually use “Alfano 2” but some have taken the better points of each to create a third.

When the publisher allowed other composers to see Puccini's original unfinished sketches, it's apparent Alfano paid very little attention to them. Now, after more than 75 years of familiarity with Alfano's version, it is difficult for some people to accept Berio's darker, less sympathetic version, though others have said it is actually closer to what might have been Puccini's intent.

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The sound of Turandot is also something new and different. After his initial successes with Manon Lescaut (1893), La Boheme (1896), Tosca (1900), Madame Butterfly (1904) and then the less well-known operas, La fanciulla del West (The Girl from the Golden West) (1910), La Rondine (1917) and Il Trittico (1918), Puccini was taking more of an interest in what was going around him, familiarizing himself with new music being written by Schoenberg (Pierrot Lunaire, 1911) and Stravinsky (The Rite of Spring, 1913) among other composers of what was then being regarded as the “avant-garde.”

At points to emphasis Turandot's “reign of terror,” Puccini made a great deal of the interval, the tritone (“the devil in music”) though he had already exploited its character in the music associated with the evil Scarpia in Tosca. Stravinsky's harsh rhythms and use of polytonality (several keys played at once, a very unstable sound) underlined this same dramatic harshness with something musically harsh but appropriate.

In Madame Butterfly, he paid little serious attention to actual Japanese music, using certain cliches to approximate the “idea” of its Japanese setting. In Turandot, set in China, he used three authentic Chinese folk-songs, taken from a music-box that played eight actual Chinese themes, given to him by a friend, Baron Fassini: for the children's chorus in Act 1 that introduces the execution procession of the Prince of Persia, a tune known as “Jasmine Flower;” music sung by the three ministers, Ping, Pang and Pong in Act 1, and then the Imperial Hymn. Elsewhere, he occasionally uses pentatonic themes (the five-note scale, comparable to the black keys on a piano) to give the coloration of Orientalism.

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Though it had no impact on Puccini's music, the tradition of Peking Opera which began in China around 1790 (though inspired by ancient theatrical traditions) is a major visual influence on many productions of Puccini's opera and quite possibly on the lavishness of costumes in Zeffirelli's production (fortunately not imitating the make-up, acting or singing style). Here are some photos from different productions of traditional Peking Opera.











This scene relies heavily on the acrobatic contingent of the theater which were often included in the story just as ballet was a regular part of many European operas. Still, amazing entertainment.

Here is a video of an actual performance of some "Peking Opera" - listen to the different sounds not only of the instruments but of the vocal production as well!


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While some people may dislike the hugeness of Zeffireli's production, take as an example of sheer silliness seen in this trailer for the English National Opera's 2009 production which appears to be set in a modern-day Chinese Restaurant, has pig-headed cooks, an Ice Princess who looks like she bought her costume at Wal-Mart's Wedding Boutique and there is even an Elvis Impersonator among the chorus... I laughed a lot when I watched this but was glad not to have purchased tickets to see it. (I mean, really... come on...)

- Dr. Dick

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The photographs of the Metropolitan Opera production by Franco Zeffireli are from the Met's website and are by Beth Bergman (2002).

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