Pittsburgh Opera is offering a stunning-looking, superbly sung, expertly staged new production of Turandot, Giacomo Puccini’s final opera, whose libretto is by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, based on a play by Carlo Gozzi. Puccini’s magnificent music and stunning orchestrations, often richly colored by deliberate orientalism, constantly come across as beautiful and thoroughly realized not only by the solo singers but also by the Mark Trawka-led chorus and by the orchestra conducted by Antony Walker.
I was completely impressed with the distinctive voices of NaGuanda Nobles as Liù and Hao Jiang Tian in the role of Timur. Susan Neves’ Turandot often sounded too dynamic and loud, but you could make an argument that that’s consistent with the Princess’ aggressive harshness. Regarding Calaf, before Tuesday’s curtain rose, General Director Christopher Hahn announced to the audience that Frank Porretta would still perform as the Prince but was suffering from sudden and severe allergy. Most of the time Porretta gamely sang sturdily.
Director/choreographer Renaud Doucet and set/costume designer André Barbe, both Canadians, have come up a non-stop visual spectacle making this story look like alien ritual combined with experimental effects, rather than a literal depiction of the story.. The quasi-Asian stage decorations have brilliant life of their own, including clouds which lift on a promising dawn. Doucet also brought out some good dramatic touches from his principals when, rather than ritualistically posing, they behave like humans. These choices and more compensate for the story’s questionable details.
As Puccini operas go, the basis seems much further removed from real life than La Boheme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. It’s probably better not to look too closely at the narrative defects.
FYI: Turandot, a Chinese princess, has developed a deadly contest over the years motivated by the brutal death of an ancestor during a war. Turandot has offered herself in marriage to any royal prince who can solve three riddles, with the understanding that if the contender fails, he will lose his head. You can see her motivation, men cause war, especially royal ones, and she’s found a way to extract regular revenge.
Meanwhile the constant streams of blood from the executions have become popular public entertainment, like the worst excesses of the French Revolution. Given that regular death toll, it looks as if royal houses all over that part of the world will need to become more fecund if they want to stay in power.
A visiting Prince, the almost anonymous Calaf, gazes at Turandot and falls head over heels in love…well, not actually his head; it is still attached. He decides to become a contestant, despite widespread advice not to, from the Emperor himself, from three rather comic ministers Ping, Pang and Pong as well as from Calaf’s aged father, Timur, plus Liù, who’s been with the family long enough to be in love with Calaf.
You have to ask if the riddles have always been the same or if they are new each time. If they are the same, Calaf could have had plenty of chances to study how the losers failed. But Turandot could also continually claim that she was getting the wrong answers; after all, she could make up new ones on the spot. On the other hand, coming up with original and difficult riddles every time would keep her pretty busy, Even with plenty of servants to take care of her, she might have had a lot of sleepless nights either way inventing new riddles or new answers. That could become seriously irritating, a reason for her not bursting with happiness.
Calaf solves the riddles, which certainly puts a crimp in Turandot’s eternal plan. Since she doesn’t warm up to him, he tries to light her fire by proposing his own decapitation if she can figure out his name by dawn. Consequently the seriously compromised, frustrated Princess, used to having her own way, tells everyone at court that she’ll have them killed if they don’t find out his name by the dead(so to speak)line. Moreover she authorizes torturing Liù to extract the name from her. Liù commits suicide rather than reveal what she knows.
Then, during pre-nuptial embraces, Calaf’s foreplay not overcoming Turandot’s frigidity, he tells her his name, saying she can use it and him anyway which turns her on. After a few hours, she thaws completely and marries the guy who loves her not for the cruel, nasty, dreadful, spoiled, willful person she is, but for who she might become when he’s the top guy, such as when motherhood gets her to lie down quietly for a few months. Call the Prince some kind of a masochistic nut. That’s royalty for you: in love whatever that means.
Try not to think about it. Just listen and watch and come away as much impressed by the sound and look as am I.
There are two performances remaining of Pittsburgh Opera's Turandot: Friday April 1st at 8 p.m. and Sunday April 3rd at 2pm at Benedum Center, downtown. 412-456-6666 and pittsburghopera.org