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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.

Dancers5_WNO Turandot 09_cr. Karin Cooper.jpg

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.


Dario Volonte as Calaf, Maria Guleghina as Turandot_WNO Turandot 09_cr. Karin Cooper.jpg
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.


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.Norman Shankle, Nathan Herfindal, Yingxi Zhang as Ping, Pang, Pong_WNO Turandot 09_cr. Karin Coo.jpg

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."


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.


So what did Mehta and Zhang do to make Puccini's Turandot more Chinese? They (well, Mehta and not Zhang who was on the Red Chinese banned list) managed to get permission to use a staging space that matched the grandeur of ancient China, which also meant filling up the stage with a huge number of supernumeraries. Zhang hired hundreds of soldiers to stand on the huge stage. Zhang insisted that costumes mirror the Ming influence built into the Forbidden City. Therefore 900 costumes were made by 100 rural Chinese families (it took them four months) that would be used in the nine performances presented. Zhang also stuck to his guns about how he wanted the lighting to heighten the color of the performers' costumes. In the film this is an interesting cultural lesson because Zhang has to persuade the Guido Levy, a highly respected lighting designer in the opera business. Guido complains to the documentary film director that Zhang wants light everywhere with no subtlety. Zhang's preference seems to mirror how Chinese opera works--as audience you aren't expected to be quiet, people are eating and prostitutes are working the crowd. Zhang says Chinese opera is messy and the audience likes it that way. Additionally Zhang taught the cast of international singers (there were three sets of singers for the principle roles) Chinese gestures and he hired a Chinese acrobat--a four foot ten inch girl whose bones were rubber--to be Turandot's executioner.

Another side benefit from seeing the documentary of the Turandot Project was that I better understood how most directors including Serban prefer that the sopranos selected to sing the part of Princess Turandot are fearsome and strong voices. After all, Turandot says during the opera, "I am not human, I am the daughter of the Emperor of Heaven."

As to Puccini who typically wrote verismo opera and not fantasy, Turandot was his last opera. In fact, he did not live long enough to complete it. That he was not able to complete the work is greatly regretted because he had sketched out a finale that he hoped would rival the finale of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. After Puccini died in December 1924, his family and his publisher hired Franco Alfano to complete the work. There was a boatload of controversy about this choice. Alfano was not Puccini's choice and many, including Toscanini who premiered the completed opera in 1926, had a hard time accepting how Alfano finished Turandot. When Liù commits suicide, this is where Puccini's work ended. Dario Volonte as Calaf, Sabina Cvilak as Liu, Morris Robinson as Timur2_WNO Turandot 09_cr. Kari.jpg

In Serban's notes in the WNO program, he offered, "The composer, possibly sensing the inevitability of his own death, felt the need to address issues larger than ordinary aspects of every day life." The Dresser thinks that Serban's instincts were right in creating a riotous explosion of color, that the masks (though also a big part of Commedia dell'arte) suggest the secretness of the Chinese character (by the way, Mehta had to first have a secret meeting with Zhang to show him the staging area he wanted within the Forbidden City), and that the impressive scroll that is unfurled across the entire length of the stage as Ping, Pang, and Pong sing about where they are from and how their work as ministers keep them from a better life. However, the Dresser needed to see how Zubin Mehta addressed his production of Turandot before she could really appreciate what Puccini was trying to achieve.

Although Puccini died of a heart attack, his end was brought on by complications in treating throat cancer. Anne Caston in Judah's Lion, her book from Toad Hall Press, offers the following poem with echoes of John Donne's sonnet "Batter My Heart, Three-person'd God." Similar to Puccini's Turandot and how Puccini met his end, "Psalm, After the Fall from Remission" addresses disease, death, and a sleepless night.


Remake me, Potter, or break me
into three final holy pieces: scatter me
knucklebone, eyelash, and tooth to the wind and rain.
Give what remains of me to the poor--called
last to every table save Death's.

For reasons worse than hunger, I'm driven
into bargaining again with You, the throttle thrown wide.

What a strange affliction being mortal is.
In one night, the camp of the body is made
or broken. I arm myself; I resist; I try
not to enter the one dark pass
where I will be taken.

Tonight my house is full with waking.
I, too, am full of a curtained hour I have not yet known.

When the sun rose today, this iron bed was bright with morning
and all the daily little blisses of ignorance. By the time the sun went down,
the world of the living was closed again to me, even the false light hope gives
off, and I lay feverish in cotton sheets so clean the rain was in them still.
Even the pillowslip was innocent of my undoing.

Anne Caston 

from Judah's Lion

Copyright © 2007 Anne Caston

Photos by Karin Cooper


Comments (1)

This is complex, and bears rereading with pleasure. Loving Italian opera, this is hard for me to fathom. I like the reference to Hilary Tham, and the poem by ANNE CASTON very much!

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