, December 2009
The allure of the Orient has been inescapable for many a composer, and for good reason. The exotic locale, not to mention its ethnic music, offers a wealth of color and tonal possibilities not always available in the tried (trite?) and true Western tradition. Even in pieces not ostensibly borrowing from Eastern pentatonic modes, the flash and flourish of an “alien” culture helps to make something that might otherwise seem distasteful or at the very least perhaps a little odd somehow more appealing. While many people are familiar with A Thousand and One Nights, which inspired Rimsky-Korsakov’s fantastic orchestral masterpiece Scheherezade, fewer are probably aware there’s a sister tome, A Thousand and One Days, and it includes the story which eventually gave Puccini the inspiration for his final opera, Turandot, a piece which lay unfinished at the great composer’s death, and whose subsequent performance history is bound up in various attempts (some would argue misfires) to provide an appropriate conclusion to a story that doesn’t exactly give opera lovers goosebumps in the happily ever after department. After all, it’s hard to root for a heroine who has her suitors beheaded and who delights in the potential demise of the man who manages to thwart her Garbo-esque dictum, “I want to be alone.”
Puccini, who spent a compositional lifetime crafting several works featuring delicate, almost fragile, heroines, might seem like the least likely composer to tackle a prickly subject like the character Turandot. If not ostensibly evil, she is a woman of Freudian proportions, unless one actually ascribes the Freudian elements of her depiction to Puccini himself. Literally an “ice princess,” Turandot is an odd focal point for an opera in that she almost magnetically opposes any hint of sympathy the audience may feel for her. A woman who has potential suitors beheaded if they can’t properly answer her three riddles is hardly the stuff of fairy tales, operatic or otherwise. In this incredibly opulent production staged by acclaimed film director Chen Kaige (Farewell, My Concubine), the pomp and pageantry of the physical production only slightly mitigates this distaste one feels for a title character who is largely despicable, if ultimately understandable. While soprano Maria Guleghina has had a somewhat spotty recording career, she aptly portrays Turandot as a deeply conflicted character whose pride leads ultimately to her downfall, a downfall which is, ironically, a saving grace, at least in the finale as imagined by Franco Alfano, who completed Puccini’s sketches.
Part of Turandot’s inherent dramatic problems is the fact that Puccini spends about two and a half acts setting up his anti-heroine and her potential husband, Calaf (Marco Berti) as the sort of sparring lovers that frequently populate screwball comedies, without (due to his death) ever providing a really clear path to a dramatically coherent conclusion. They can’t stand each other, yet you know they’re ultimately going to fall in love. Even this analogy is a bit skewed, as Calaf is head over heels in love with Turandot, yet seemingly unable to chop through her façade of imperiousness. Therefore, the real emotional heft of the opera is left to Liù (Alexia Voulgaridou), the servant girl who, in typically starcrossed operatic fashion, is hopelessly in love with Calaf. While some critics have argued (persuasively, it might be admitted) that Liù is a study in misogyny, as indeed is Turandot herself, I would argue quite the opposite. Liù is about as perfect a portrayal of the sacred feminine, at least in its guise as willing sacrificial lamb at the altar of divine (and even Divine) love, as has ever appeared in an opera. But there’s no arguing the fact that huge swaths of Turandot seem frankly anti-woman in practice if not in intent.
This is an incredibly colorful pageant which makes the most of the opera’s setting in China “in legendary times.” Kaige and video director Tiziano Mancini bring a true filmic approach to this piece, with excellent use of tracking and crane shots which open the proscenium feeling up rather remarkably. The entire production design is admirable, with Liu King’s sets and Chen Tong Xun’s costumes really sumptuous throughout, capturing a sort of timeless feudal feeling mixed with a Westerner’s perhaps idealized view of what traditional Chinese culture looks like. There’s a static quality to the staging (one which actually springs from the libretto itself) which actually adds to the mythic quality of the story being depicted.
Turandot is, of course, the opera which gave us the inestimable “Nessun Dorma,” a song which helped catapult Luciano Pavarotti into the tenor stratosphere. If Marco Berti lacks the liquid lyrical qualities of Pavarotti, he doesn’t shy away from Puccini’s insanely high writing and manages a good balance of control and force in his passionate portrayal. Javier Aguiló as Turandot’s father and Alexia Voulgaridou as Liù are also excellent in their roles, able to act believably while also singing well.
We’re beginning to see more and more ambitious stagings of various operas in both the live performance medium as well as film itself (see my recent review of La Bohème). Turandot is not an easy piece for modern audiences to swallow, at least dramatically if not musically. Puccini set the bar very high in terms of the psychological subtext of these characters, and his illness and obvious foreknowledge of his own impending mortality may have adversely affected his ability to chart a clear course for the dramatic flow of action. That said, melodies pour out of this piece as perhaps in no other Puccini opera, which is saying quite a bit. It’s as if the composer, knowing the end was near, wanted to commit as much glorious music as possible to paper before his demise. Under the sure and steady baton of Zubin Mehta, and with a splendid physical production to help perhaps make the unseemly elements of the character Turandot go down at least little more easily, this is a Turandot that any Puccini lover should cherish.
Turandot is one of the best looking operatic Blu-rays yet, from Unitel Classica, featuring an AVC encoded 1080i image. Part of the splendor can be attributed directly to the really sumptuous physical production this opera has received. Unbelievably well saturated colors, especially reds, inhabit this piece and virtually pop off the screen at times. Detail is impeccable, with fine needlework on various costumes clearly discernable. Fleshtones are excellent (keep in mind many of these singers are very heavily made up), and contrast is also really superb throughout. Parts of the lighting design leave very evocative shadows drifting across sections of the stage, and black levels are consistent. Close ups provide a sometimes shocking level of detail, where you can literally see the strokes of eyebrow pencil on some actors' faces. It's a pleasure to see something this elegantly designed and delivered to Blu-ray so flawlessly.
Similarly, the DTS HD-MA 5.1 mix is virtually flawless, with deep, resonant tones filling the front three channels, with good surround utilization providing hall ambience and some appealing directionality. This is big, bombastic music at times and the DTS offering provides brilliant fidelity and clear, distortion free reproduction. I was just very occasionally bothered by some balance issues between the orchestra and the singers, usually in solo moments. Choral singing cuts through the orchestral mass quite easily and provides a lot of the pomp Turandot offers the listener. As is typical with these offerings, the PCM 2.0 fold down is clear as a bell, though with noticeably narrower sound and next to no hall ambience.
Special Features and Extras
Aside from a brief essay and synopsis contained in the insert booklet, the BD itself features an interesting, if fairly standard, Making Of featurette that runs 36 minutes. Kaige as well as all the principal singers offer their thoughts on both the opera itself and this particular production.
Overall Score and Recommendation
This is about as opulent a production of Turandot as you could possibly hope for. Kaige was an inspired choice to bring this piece to the stage. With largely elegant singing and playing and one of the most impressive physical productions I've had the pleasure of seeing recently, this is a Turandot that at least provides a feast for the eye and ear. Individual audience members will obviously have to come to terms with how they view and react to the characters, chiefly Turandot herself.