Finding the Chinese in Turandot
On May 21, 2009, the Dresser experienced Giacomo Puccini's Turandot, Washington National Opera's closing offering of their 2008-2009 season.
She chooses the word experienced because Director Andrei Serban's popular production that originally premiered at London's Royal Opera House in 1984 and has been staged more than 50 times by opera companies around the world presents Puccini's last opera as a larger-than-life spectacle of colorful costumes, over-sized and face-fitting masks, dramatic props, an elegant red-bannered theater-within-a-theater set, Eastern-inspired movement (i.e. Kabuki, tai chi), and two sopranos--the powerful Maria Guleghina as Turandot and the subtle Sabina Cvilak as Liù --whose performances inspired rapt wonder for different reasons.
NO ONE SLEEPS UNTIL NAMES ARE NAMED
While Argentine tenor Dario Volonté as Calaf, the unknown prince who dares to answer all Turandot's riddles correctly while risking his head (she orders those who fail to fall under the blade of her executioner), provides a reasonable performance but not matching the power of of Maria Guleghina's performance, the Dresser found herself wondering what it would have been like to have heard the original Royal Opera House production when Plácido Domingo was Calaf. Thanks to the immediacy of the Internet and YouTube, one can hear and see Domingo and many other world-renown tenors such as Luciano Pavrotti singing the most beloved Turandot aria "Nessun Dorma" ("No One Shall Sleep").
The story boils down to this: Princess Turandot, based on the fate of a female ancestor, doesn't trust men. She says she will marry any man who solves her three riddles, but when a stranger comes to town and answers her riddles, she reneges. Because he is truly smitten, he offers that if she can produce his name, then she doesn't have to marry him. Meanwhile the stranger has been seen with a blind old man and his female servant Liù. Turandot's servants under death threat unless they discover the stranger's name tortures the female servant who protects her old master by saying only she knows. In fact, not only does she know the stranger's name (and the stranger is Prince Calaf, the son of her master, the deposed King Timur), but also she is in love with Calaf. Although Turandot has a happy ending because Princess Turandot falls in love with Calaf and agrees to marry him, the story has a dark side because the servant girl Liù commits suicide to protect Calaf and his name.
FINDING THE CHINESE IN AN ITALIAN OPERA
What the Dresser (and undoubtedly audience throughout the years) finds odd about Turandot is that here is an opera about Chinese people sung in Italian with three characters--Ping, Pang, and Pong--modeled on Commedia dell'Arte figures. The trio of jesters are the princess' ministers. Granted that Chinese opera has its buffoons and Tan Dun has shown us these kinds of characters in his contemporary opera The First Emperor, Turandot's clowns seem too Italian. As for the music, it proceeds like a Richard Wagner opera--with the music constantly flowing and accented by leitmotifs. Unlike other well-known Puccini operas inspired by real life stories, this one with libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni is based on an invented fairy tale by Venetian magician Carlo Gozzi.
So what to do? The Dresser decided she needed a deeper understanding of Turandot, conducted some research on the Internet and then learned about Zubin Mehta's Turandot Project. In 1997, Mehta decided he wanted to mount a new production of Puccini's opera that cut out the clichés about Chinese people and culture. To do this the maestro went out on a limb and enlisted China's most controversial film director Zhang Yimou, best known to Westerners for his film, Raise the Red Lantern and who had never directed an opera before. Zhang apprenticed to Mehta during the Florence premiere and then after long negotiations with the Chinese government (the films of Zhang were censored by the Chinese government), the pair staged a more spectacular version of Turandot in a courtyard within the Forbidden City of Beijing.
So the Dresser left her blue upholstered computer desk chair and drove to College Park, Maryland, where she visited the non-print media section of Hornbake Library at the University of Maryland where she could see Allan Miller II's 87-minute documentary film on how Mehta made this "more authentic" version of Turandot. The renowned conductor said, "I wanted a China the outside world had never seen before."
GETTING INTO THE SKIN OF THE MUSIC MAKERS
In viewing a scene of the film where Zhang Yimou sits directly behind Zubin Mehta in a Florence, Italy, opera house (he is studying the maestro's every move), the Dresser suddenly flashed on having had a similar experience. In maybe the fall of 2003 with her poet friend Hilary Tham, the Dresser attended a performance of The Barber of Seville at the Teatro Comunale di Firenze. Their seats were directly behind Mehta. They were literally breathing down his neck. Since the Dresser had always pictured herself as a conductor in some other life where she was not a poet, she found herself seeing the opera through the conductor's every gesture.
In October of 2001, the Dresser spent a week with Ms. Tham visiting the haunts of Giacomo Puccini, Ms. Tham's favorite opera composer. This included the house he was born in located in the walled city of Lucca and his house in Torre del Lago where he is buried with his wife (not in the ground of the property but inside the house). Ms. Tham, originally a Malaysian of Chinese descent, told me Turandot was her most favorite of all Puccini's operas, something the Dresser is just understanding having stumbled into Mehta's collaboration with Zhang because of seeing Serban's production which, though quite magnificent, raised more questions than it answered.