Puccini – Turandot

Published on 14th July 2012 in Music
Part of the “30 Day Challenges: The Album Club” post series

30 seconds into my adventure into Turandot, I have already navigated myself hopelessly far away from my starting page on Wikipedia in simply trying to understand the jargon surrounding operas, because I am really quite ignorant.

But, the Proms has just started, and I very much enjoyed the Ólafur Arnalds album the other day. I suppose I ought to be less afraid about getting into the spirit of ‘high-art’ music. Please forgive me though if I start describing anything here as ‘cool’ or ‘awesome’ or suchlike.

So in an attempt to appear to be saying anything vaguely intelligent today, I am going to tread very carefully: Rather than try to be critical, I’m just going to offer an “alternative” synopsis of the play which will hopefully serve to explain exactly why I found Puccini’s Opera enjoyable, despite struggling to want to engage with it at first.

The main thing that made this fun for me was simply the plot of the play, which I related to the 1958 Mario Lanfranchi film version. Luckily for me, it has subtitles.

Basically, there’s a Princess – Turandot – who is looking for a man to marry. Only problem is, Turandot is a bit of a bitch. Any man that wants to get married to her has to answer three riddles, and if they get any of the answers wrong, she beheads them.

That kind of storyline, ladies & gentlemen, is what makes opera awesome. (£1 in the operatic malediction tin for saying ‘awesome’ already).

Enter an unnamed Prince, son of Timur (an exiled King), and Liù – a slave girl who is secretly in love with the prince just because he flashed her a smile once. She’s a stalker, in other words.

They’re just in time! As if to prove she’s not kidding around, Turandot beheads the last man who tried to answer her riddles. She waits for the crowd to beg her to spare his life, then gives the signal to behead him anyway.

Now that would be enough to put most men off, but not the Prince. Turandot’s killer instinct (or maybe her perfume) seems to be some kind of turn on for him.

My favourite bits of music in the opera are provided by Ping, Pong & Pang – the ministers who oversee Turandot’s reign, and her executions. Their passages seems to be the best at reflecting the oriental setting of the play, and they are quite often cheeky, and well arranged – both for the singers and the orchestra. It is composed in such a way that the lines are interweaved brilliantly, and the orchestra does not get in the way of the dialogue.

Quite sensibly, Ping, Pong & Pang point out some ghosts, all of whom once tried to play Turandot’s little game. They also note that the Prince is a handsome chap, and he could have “a hundred bosoms in a hundred beds” instead of Turandot if he so wished. Now if that’s not good advice…

The Prince’s father and Liù agree, and they all plead with the Prince to avoid Turandot’s challenge. Liù wails that the Prince once smiled at her wah wah wah.

In an attempt to shut her up, the Prince suggests that Liù go and die in exile along with her father, so that he can concentrate on the Princess. Ignoring all of them, the Prince strikes a gong to signal his intent to engage in Turandot’s challenge. I’m left wondering how a man so intellectually inept will ever answer three riddles.

So we’re led to believe that the Prince is pretty stupid, and it’s already quite obvious what’s going to happen to Liù… I’ll give you a clue: Even though the Princess Turandot is quite frumpy, and Liù would be quite hot if she scrubbed up well, the Prince is a major tool. So much so that he hasn’t even introduced himself to any of us yet.

When it comes to the time that the Prince is about to answer his riddles, Turandot reveals that her intention is to never be possessed by a man, hence her violent game. Puccini gives Turandot some of her most dramatic singing at this point, stretching the soprano range, presumably to cement the fact that Turandot is a crazy bitch.

She points out, helpfully, that “there are three riddles, but only one death”. Something that the stupid Prince may or may not have found useful to know.

Anyway, it’s moot because he gets the (clearly ridiculous and totally subjective) riddles correct. Turandot is dismayed that she might have to marry this idiot, so he tells her that if she can work out his name, he’ll top himself come morning. An extremely logical proposal, I’m sure you’ll agree.

The music during the riddle scene has more continuity to it. It is more driving and joined-up than the music up until this point. It seems to have been done to allow Puccini to increase the drama as the Prince gets closer to Turandot with each correctly-answered riddle.

The end of this scene also contains an allusion to the theme of the famous Nessun Dorma which is resolved towards the start of the last act.

Nessun Dorma is the operatic equivalent of me turning to talk about Hit Me Baby One More Time in the context of 90s pop music – you don’t need to be a fan of 90s pop music in order to know it. In that sense, it’s quite refreshing hear it in its proper context at this point.

The Princess is pretty desperate to get out of her little tryst and threatens all of her subjects with death if they don’t work out the Prince’s name (which is eventually given to us as “Calaf” by the way) by dawn. Calaf seems unworried, and proceeds to state the fucking obvious by saying that None shall sleep unless his name is found out.

I suppose I’m unsure as to how the Nessun Dorma passage is supposed to sit. To me, it’s a very emotionally triumphant piece of music, as if to say “I have worked so hard and come so close, and I smell victory”.

However, the Prince seems to have sauntered around, relying on his charms and his luck, and I’m not so sure that Turandot wouldn’t just have a callous moment one day and, literally, cleave his brainless head away from his body with her bare teeth anyway. So it seems a bit of a hollow victory if you ask me.

Really, I think the victory would be for the gene pool, if the selfish doofus Prince were to die, and the largely-unirritating subjects to live.

So I’m filled with hope when Liù emerges to be tortured by Turandot’s men so that she will give up Calaf’s name. Surely she will have remembered that the Prince cast her aside and ignored her all-passionate declarations of unconditional love?

Nope. Predictably, she whines for a bit, about being in love and not wanting the Prince to hear her scream (he DOESN’T CARE, Liù), then she kills herself without giving up Calaf’s name. What a waste.

The Prince cheerily gloats about how he is going to get with Turandot whilst she repulses and recoils at his advances. Finally, with one deft kiss, Calaf destroys every last ounce of Turandot’s pride and leaves her a miserable wreck.

At this point, I think everyone is feeling quite sorry for Turandot. So to cheer her up, Calaf tells her his name, and that he is Timur’s son. Then she’s all like “oh awesome, you should have said, let’s get it on”; in so doing calling the end to a very long day, and leaving me in no confusion whatsoever that he will remain a douchebag, and she a power-hungry she-demon with an unhealthy tendency to decapitate people.

Despite my facetiousness, I really am glad that I spent the time watching and listening to Turandot. I do still feel like I would need to obsess about this in order to absorb it properly. Then again I watched Drive with Ryan Gosling last week and I already feel like I need to watch that again to get a full grasp of the story. I’m hopelessly inept.

I have a few closing thoughts then.

  1. Opera [as I have experienced it in a very limited way] is hilarious.
  2. Although improbable, the stories in opera [in my limited experience] are extremely entertaining.
  3. Turandot is cool wicked awesome.

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