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Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011

The Evocative Splendor of 'Turandot'

Puccini's masterpiece at Florentine Opera

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With Turandot, Puccini stepped boldly into the sexual psychology of the 20th century while maintaining a firm foothold in the romantic tradition that nurtured his genius. It makes for a curious hybrid. Puccini wrote in 1920 that he wanted the libretto to express “repression and sexual conflict by way of the modern mind.” Yet, to a degree, the psychological aspects of the darker subtext become suffused by the evocative splendor of Puccini's most haunting music. The opera was long in preparation and wasn't performed until 1926, with the crucial final duet unfinished by the composer's death.

Puccini couldn't help but produce a spectacularly brilliant statement of riotous clashing colors, a superbly melodic score seemingly at odds with its sadistic elements. The chorus is not just a bystander, but also a vital protagonist in this strange new Puccini world. The eerie, violent intensity of the magnificent first act contrasts an almost savage barbaric grandeur with the romantic world of myth and darkness. Yet, the score remains disturbingly suspended between the lyrical and the legendary, the cynical and the comical and the people's barbarous frenzy, all brilliantly offset by the prevailing cloud cover of Princess Turandot's dysfunctional persona. From the opening beat, with the Mandarin announcing the impending beheading of the Persian prince who failed Turandot's three riddles, the atmosphere is chillingly transcendent with savage Tartar motifs unlike Puccini's more familiar work. The myth of a princess demanding death for three unanswerable riddles is no more unusual than the story of the princess and the pea. It's the sort of thing mythical princesses do, but Turandot's riddles have a cutting edge, a pathological desire for perpetual revenge for the rape and murder of her ancestress Lou Ling.

The first act is a self-contained masterpiece. The prince Calaf will undergo the trials. The slave girl Liu tries to dissuade him in her lovely aria “Signore ascolta,” but his response, “Non piangere, Liu,” is a lovely harbinger of the more famous and yet to come “Nessun dorma.” Turandot's opening aria “In questa reggia” begins harshly, yet this rationalization of her motives concludes almost poignantly. The spatial ambiguity of the answers is no less mysterious than the princess herself. The second act is Puccini's only attempt at grand spectacle, but the true subtlety and grandeur of the score keeps the drama suspended. The riddle scene offers no musical surprises until Turandot pleads to be released from her vow. Amid the mayhem, Calaf again risks his life, posing his own riddle—that of his identity. For the first time the strains of “Nessun dorma“ are heard, very quietly, transmuting the tone of Calaf's desire, making it clear he wants more than a conquest. He wants her love.

“Nessun Dorma” has become one of the most famous arias in the world. With it, Calaf emerges from the world of myth and brings Turandot into the world of love. Puccini died before he could complete the final duet, and many have felt that the added-on finale, which is merely a compendium of Puccini's motifs, leaves the riddle unanswered. Perhaps the greater irony is that the mystery of Turandot remains buried with Puccini.

The Florentine Opera's performance of this controversial masterpiece promises a remarkable production of stunning, phantasmagoric Orientalist images. More important is the outstanding cast headed by soprano Lise Lindstrom, who has sung Turandot to international acclaim at La Scala and the Metropolitan. Audience favorite tenor Renzo Zulian will sing Calaf and soprano Rena Harms will make her Florentine debut as the hapless Liu. It's an intense, challenging work. The first act alone is 35 minutes long and the opera's exotic orchestration deserves comparison with the finest of Verdi and Wagner.

The Florentine Opera performs
Turandot Nov. 4 and Nov. 6 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets, visit www.florentineopera.org or call 414-291-5700 ext. 224.

Steve Spice is a retired educator interested in cultural sociology, the historical background of Western music and the early development of motion pictures.
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