MET Opera House–Lincoln Center–Wednesday October 23rd, 2019
This week, friends, we find ourselves once again, drawn to a wonderful imperial, scintillating, and here as well, exotic opera; again by Puccini, his last one; adapted from far away dark fairy tales, which fortunately, this time around, ends well for the heroes!
And since Puccini had died suddenly in 1924, it is also important to know also, in my opinion, that the end scenes were written by wonderfully talented composer Franco Alfano, an opera composer known for his adaptation of Cyrano (de Bergerac); and I am convinced that Alfano, tried, as best as he knew how, to follow Puccini’s wishes, regarding the final scenes. And to make the culmination of the love story between Princess Turandot and her Prince Calaf, a thing of pure imagination, a thing of immortal beauty, a thing, just like the mythical love story, between Endymion and Selene, a thing of absolute, upended, rare beauty, as we can find it too, in the incredible Keats poem: “A thing of beauty”.
And to give you a bit of context, about this myth, about these two love birds, just know that Endymion captivated Selene, the goddess of the Moon. She was immortal, meaning she never got any older, so she asked Zeus, to make Endymion, immortal. But Selene only fancied Endymion, when he was asleep, so she wanted him immortal, and always sleeping too. Zeus, being a fair man, allowed Endymion to sleep, while Selene was around, during the night, but allowed him, to remain awake, during the day. While he was asleep, Endymion fathered daughters, the Menae, who represented the lunar months.
Isn’t it marvelous?
Let’s now listen, to the beautiful poem, and admire as well, stunning paintings evocative of that wonderful myth:
Isn’t it hauntingly beautiful?
As usual, I got distracted.
But let’s get back to our Puccini opera:
“Turandot” is based on a 1762 similarly titled play, by Carlo Gozzi, as well as influenced, by a later 1801 play, by Schiller entitled “Turandot, Prinzessin von China”, and also, believe it or not, inspired, as well, by a german fairytale from 1812, Rumpelstiltskin, (more on that tale later); and finally as well, know that “Turandot” was inspired initially, by a twelfth-century Persian epic poem “Haft Peykar”,”The seven beauties” by poet Nizami, which associate the seven days of the week with seven adventures, seven colors and seven planets, and the one about Princess Turandot or Turan-Dokht (daughter of Turan), takes place on a Monday, the day of the moon, “Moon day”, of course, of course, of course.
Nizami wrote the tale of Prince Calaf, who tries to woo, an extraordinarily beautiful and desirable, yet unfeeling, icy, Princess Turandot, in ancient, legendary China.
And what poetic libretto by talented Adami and and Simoni; and also of course, what an extraordinarily sumptuous, exalted, epic, imperial and stately, Zeffirelli production; and what music; beautifully conducted, last Wednesday by Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin!
Let’s take a quick peek:
And Christine Goerke, the powerful American soprano as the stunning, alluring, desirable, yet menacing, cruel Princess Turandot, was wonderfully believable that evening; and so was astoundingly sensitive, and yet, manly Azerbaijani tenor, Eyvazov, as Prince Calaf; as well as Italian soprano, Buratto, the most moving character of the opera, in my opinion, as the courageous loving Liu, a “servant” to Prince Calaf’s father (King Timur), and in love with Prince Calaf herself; and who will sacrifice herself, so that the man she loves, can find happiness: poor thing, if you ask me, she should fight for love (more on that a bit later), or find a new one in my opinion, but this is opera!
Let me summarize one more time, with a bit more detail, the plot for you.
“Turandot” tells the story of an extremely foxy, gorgeous, albeit, icy-hearted, aloof princess, in a China of legend; a merciless ruler, who distrusts the institution of marriage, which she finds “enslaving”; as one of her ancestor, the sweet Princess Lou-Ling was brutally murdered by a conquering prince. So, to avenge her death, Turandot has turned against all men, and believes that no man, shall ever possess her.
Furthermore, to avoid marrying easily, and to test the worthiness or her princes/suitors, the Princess Turandot and her kingdom, require from any prince/suitor wanting to marry the Princess, to answer three riddles correctly. And if the prince fails to answer these properly, death then, will await the prince/suitor.
Yet, fortunately for the Princess, thanks to the brilliant, pure hearted, intrepid, courageous, boisterous, charming, dreamy, and trusting Prince Calaf, Princess Turandot will finally awaken to love!
As she has finally met someone, who is not only, her equal intellectually, but who will also, soften/ open up her heart, by showing her one of the most important components of a wonderful and healthy relationship; the notion of trust.
And of course, I think she could “transform” even more, Princess Turandot could be transfigured more deeply still, by the power of love, but I will talk about that too, a little later.
And at the opening of the opera, we realize, that many princes have already died, trying to answer these cryptic riddles.
And before venturing further into the story, I also just want to mention the incredible chorus melodies in the first act, as the night sets in, and the moon rises slowly, it is so incredibly poetic, and wonderfully romantic, its sets the tone, for the love about to grow between Prince Calaf and Princess Turandot, despite the cruel atmosphere that surrounds Turandot at the opening of the opera…
So despite the strange and icy atmosphere, surrounding the gorgeous Princess Turandot, enters soon, a dashing prince, Prince Calaf, son of King Timur, his long-lost father, and deposed king of Tartary (now occupied by Chinese authorities), determined to win Princess Turandot, and make her, his bride.
And why is Prince Calaf so taken with his Princess Turandot?, because, it is love at first sight!
Let’s read what she inspires him:
|THE UNKNOWN PRINCE|
(blinded by this vision of Turandot)
O divine beauty, o marvel,
THE UNKNOWN PRINCE
Can’t you feel it?
Her perfume is in the air!
It’s in my spirit!
THE UNKNOWN PRINCE
O divine beauty, o marvel!
Isn’t it so divinely romantic?
And of course, being so taken, as is customary for each potential suitor, Prince Calaf rushes then, to the ceremonial gong, to signal his entry into the “contest.”, to try to win Turandot as his bride.
Three of Turandot’s ministers of state Ping, Pong, and Pang, try convincing Prince Calaf to change his mind.
Characters straight out of the Commedia dell’arte, these silly ministers:
Yet, let’s admire a more “Chinese” adaptation for these ministers, in terms of personality, colorful attire and accessories, of course:
How even more amusing!
And what enchanting names, I affectionately call them either, Thing 1, Thing 2, and Thing 3; or Riri, Fifi and Loulou (depending on my audience), one has to have fun as much as possible, in everything one does; yet, stay responsible as well, of course.
Of course, King Timur and his servant Liu, (who is also, for Liu, let me remind you, a childhood, dear friend, of Calaf’s, and very much in love with him, even though she knows, he does not return his feelings); King Timur and Liu, both attempt, to talk Prince Calaf out, of trying to win the riddle contest; and also tell him to keep his identity, and his name in particular; a well sealed secret, for his own protection.
It seems to the audience, that Liu might be the only one, who will be able to get through to Prince Calaf, by confessing her love for him. Yet, to everybody’s dismay, even that shy, soft, and desperate love “declaration” by Liu, is not enough, to stop Prince Calaf, from trying to win Princess Turandot, as his bride. Calaf bangs the gong, and Turandot accepts his challenge.
Let’s read now, the moving and poetic text, of Liu’s shy, soft and desperate declaration.
Get ready to grab your box of tissues:
LIÙ (weeping, approaches the Prince)
My lord, listen, ah! listen!
Liù can bear it no more!
My heart is breaking!
Alas, how long have I travelled
with your name in my soul,
your name on my lips!
But if your Fate
is decided tomorrow
we’ll die on the road to exile!
He will lose his son…
And I…the shadow of a smile!
Liù can bear it no more!
Ah, have pity!
Now let’s listen to this heart wrenching aria:
Isn’t just devastatingly unbearable?
So heartfelt, restrained, soft, subtle, discreet, and therefore, even more powerful, in my opinion.
What mastery from Puccini and his librettists!
By Act II, after we have been given an explanation about Princess Turandot’s fear of being “enslaved”, and marrying a man, she does not love, admire, and respect enough; the riddles “test” is finally happening.
And keep in mind as well, that genius Puccini, decided to adapt Gozzi’s riddles, to make them more “universal” in nature, than just, tailored to a specific audience’s culture, as Gozzi had done; and the result, as you will see, is spectacular:
Let’s discover the poetic, yet dark and terrifying riddles:
“What is born each night and dies at dawn?”
“Hope!” Prince Calaf guesses, correctly.
Turandot, unaffected, asks her second riddle:
“What flickers red and warm like a flame, yet is not fire?”
“Blood.” Calaf is right again.
This time, the princess becomes unnerved. No suitor has so far, proceeded this far. She finally asks her third riddle:
“What is like ice yet burns?”
Silence falls over the crowd. A few moments later, Calaf shouts, “Turandot!” He is right again.
The crowd cheers and congratulates Calaf. Princess Turandot pleads with her father, to release her, from marrying Prince Calaf; who is a stranger to her. Her father refuses. Prince Calaf, to calm her emotions, gives her a riddle of his own. If she answers correctly, he will agree to a death sentence. If she answers incorrectly, she will have to marry him. She accepts Prince Calaf’s deal. The prince’s riddle is this: “What is my name?” He gives her until dawn, to deliver her answer.
And you will remember, that the Prince Calaf, has never mentioned his name, to anyone, other than his father and Liu, his childhood friend, for protection reasons.
And yet, before getting to Act III, and to the end of the story, let’s discuss some more, these dark riddles, which evoke German folklore as well, as an especially terrifying fairytale, by the Grimm Brothers.
Specifically, it evokes the bleak Rumpelstilskin fairy tale, the Germans call Rumpelstilzchen.
What is this Rumpelstilzchen tale about?
Actually, it is pretty similar, to what happens in Act II and Act III of “Turandot”, you will see:
In order to appear superior, a miller lies to his king, telling him that his daughter, can spin straw into gold. The king calls for the girl/daughter, shuts her in a tower room, filled with straw, and a spinning wheel, and demands she spin, the straw into gold, by morning; or he will cut her head off.
An evil, “gremlin” like creature, then appears, and spins the straw into gold, in return for the girl/daughter’s necklace. The next day, the king takes the girl to a larger room filled with straw, to repeat the feat. The “gremlin” once again spins, in return for the girl’s ring. On the third day, the girl has been taken to an even larger room, filled with straw, and told by the king that he will marry her, if she can fill this room with gold; or execute her, if she cannot.
The girl has nothing left, with which, to pay the strange creature. He extracts from her, a promise that she will give him her firstborn child, and so he spins the straw into gold, a final time.
In the end, the king keeps his promise to marry the girl, the miller’s daughter now a queen; but when their first child is born, the “gremlin” returns to claim his payment: “Now give me what you promised.” The girl/daughter and queen, now a mother, offers him all the wealth she has, to keep the child, but the “gremlin” has no interest in her riches.
The “gremlin” fortunately, finally consents to give up his claim to the child, if the queen/mother, can guess his name, within three days.
Her many guesses fail, but before the final night, the queen/mother wanders into the woods, searching for the gremlin, and comes across his remote mountain cottage, and watches, unseen, as the gremlin wanders around his fire and sings. In his song’s lyrics, “tonight tonight, my plans I make, tomorrow tomorrow, the baby I take. The queen will never win the game, for Rumpelstiltskin is my name”, he reveals his name.
When the gremlin comes to the queen, on the third day, after first, feigning ignorance; she reveals his name, Rumpelstiltskin, and he loses his temper and their bargain. Versions vary, about whether he accuses the devil or witches, of having revealed his name to the queen.
And of course, this fairytale terrified me, as a child, and I remember it vividly!
And personally, I love the french word, or its synonyms, for “gremlin”: Un lutin/farfadet/satin.
How wonderfully quaint!
I also love, the other names than “Rumpelstiltskin”, (an unpronounceable first name of course), that the French give to this evil “gremlin” at times”: they also call him:
(Le nain) Tracassin…
And believe it or not, but Schumann, the German composer, also wrote a piece about Rumpelstiltskin dancing with fairies.
Let’s listen to their twirling:
But let’s get back to our opera!
By Act III, it is night time, and no one is allowed to sleep in Peking, until Turandot learns the name of the prince; this wonderfully brilliant, generous, charming, courageous, loving, gambler, our hero, our prince, this loner “stranger”, in a strange land; who is confident enough, in the love, he feels is brewing, between him and Turandot, to take this dangerous gamble, because he really loves her.
And of course, this reminds me of another hero, with no “name”, from the wonderful “spaghetti western” by Valerii “My name is Nobody” (1974), about a brilliant, charming, talented and at times extremely patient hero, capable of facing complex obstacles as well!
Let’s watch an excerpt, dubbed in French (why not?), that exemplifies some of the many qualities of our hero, in particular, the patience he needs to exude, to catch his fish, in addition to his other many qualities and charms:
I got distracted again.
Let’s get back to “Turandot”, and the third and last act:
Our prince is certain of his victory, and let’s watch now, the iconic aria “No one sleeps” / “Nessun dorma”, about his self confidence, at the idea of winning his Princess Turandot:
Let’s first read the text:
|THE UNKNOWN PRINCE|
No one must sleep!
No one must sleep…
You, too, o Princess,
in your cold room
look at the stars, that tremble
with love and with hope!
But my mystery is shut within me;
no one will know my name!
|No, I will say it on your mouth|
when the daylight shines!
And my kiss will break the silence
that makes you mine!
Let’s now, listen to this awesomely beautiful aria, which Eyvazov, delivered last Wednesday, beautifully; subtly, with both passion and serenity.
And I particularly love this Corelli recording:
But I also love, this modern rendition by Kaufmann:
What a wonderful voice and hunky good looks:
Let’s get back to Act III, the “unnamed” prince in Peking, is still threatened by a crowd, eager to learn his name; when soldiers drag in, Liu and King Timur. Calaf tries to convince the crowd, that neither of them, knows his name, which still remains secret.
Turandot then appears, commanding King Timur to speak. Liu replies, that she alone, knows the stranger’s identity, and will never reveal it.
She is tortured, but endures it with stoicism, and remains silent.
Impressed by her fortitude, Turandot asks Liu what gives her the strength to resist. It is love, she replies.
And Liu tells Turandot, that she too, will soon know the joys of love; and then, because this is opera, and because she knows, that Prince Calaf, has never loved her otherwise, than like, a chaste friend, Liu, kills herself with a snatched dagger.
So not the thing to do, ever.
As Liu of course, could find another man, that would fall in love with her wonderfully charming disposition, silly goose; more on that later.
But let’s first, read Liu’s incredibly moving parting words for Turandot:
|Liù: Yes, Princess, listen to me!|
You, who are enclosed in ice,
conquered by such flame,
you will love him, too!
Now let’s listen to Liu’s final aria, so devastatingly beautiful:
So sad but so moving…
Speaking of emotions about to burst; later Turandot, once alone with the “unnamed” prince, confronts him.
And he, the “unnamed” prince, realizing in a split second that for the first time in his life, he has fallen deeply in love with his passionate, hyper sensitive, injured and highly intelligent Turandot, impetuously kisses his princess, as her heart starts to thaw.
And of course, allowing this new emotional release, for the first time in her life, makes Turandot, this sensitive and highly guarded princess usually, of course, start to weep, uncontrollably.
Prince Calaf then, courageously goes, with his feelings and hers, that are finally aired in the open, and decides to entrust her with his name, as proof of his unprecedented and eternal love for her, despite the fact that he has no idea if her love for him, will be strong enough, to make her want to actually become his wife, or if she will send him to his death.
Ballsy, and so romantic of course, even if, of course, a part of the audience wonders, if the sweet Liu would not have been the better choice for him, as Turandot is portrayed as cruel, because an injured being, who never had anyone to fend for her, and could only count on her own wits, as armor. And actually, when you think about it like that, you realize that you want Turandot, to finally know love with Calaf, who so adores her.
Let’s read the poetic text:
|TURANDOT(And as he speaks, the Unknown Prince, filled with the|
sense of his right and with his passion, seizes Turandot
in his arms and kisses her in a frenzy. Carried away,
Turandot has no more resistance, no more strength, no
more will power. This unbelievable contact has
transfigured her. In a pleading, almost childish voice,
she now murmurs:)
What has become of me?
I’m lost!THE UNKNOWN PRINCE
Oh, my morning flower!
My flower, I breathe you in!
Your lily breasts,
ah! they tremble against my chest!
Already I feel you faint with sweetness,
all white in your silver cloak!VOICES WITHIN
How did you win?THE UNKNOWN PRINCE
It’s the dawn! Dawn!
Turandot’s sun has set! VOICES WITHIN
Dawn! Light and Life!
Princess, all is pure!
All is holy!
What sweetness in your weeping!THE UNKNOWN PRINCE
It’s dawn! The dawn!
And Love is born with the sun!TURANDOT
No one must see me…
My glory is ended!THE UNKNOWN PRINCE
No! It has begun!TURANDOT
I am ashamed!THE UNKNOWN PRINCE
Your glory is radiant
in the magic of a first kiss,
of your first tears.
My first tears…ah!
My first tears, yes,
stranger, when you arrived,
with anguish I felt
the fatal shudder of this great illness.
How many I’ve seen die for me!
And I scorned them;
but you, I feared!
In your eyes there was
the light of heroes!
In your eyes there was
And for that I hated you…
And I loved you for that,
tormented and torn
between two equal fears:
to defeat you or be defeated…
And I am defeated… Ah!
Defeated, not so much by the trial
as by his fever
that comes to me from you!THE UNKNOWN PRINCE
You’re mine! Mine!TURANDOT
This, this is what you sought.
Now you know.
Don’t seek a greater victory…
with your mystery!
|THE UNKNOWN PRINCE|
I no longer have one!
You are mine!
You who tremble if I touch you!
You who pale when I kiss you,
can destroy me if you will.
My name and my life
I give you together.
I am Calaf, son of Timur!TURANDOT
I know your name! CALAF
My glory is your embrace! TURANDOT
Listen! The trumpets blare! CALAF
My life is your kiss! TURANDOT
Lo, the hour has come!
It’s the hour of the trial!CALAF
I do not fear it!TURANDOT
Ah, Calaf! come with me before the people!CALAF
You have won!
My heart skips a beat…
And finally, the really romantic thing that happens, is that, despite being terrified of her ardent feelings, for her Prince Calaf, when facing the emperor, she then declares with solemnity, that she finally knows the name of the unnamed Prince; his name she declares with emotion, and a brand new confidence: his name is Love.
Let’s read the beautiful text:
August father…I know the name
of the stranger!
His name is…Love!
(Calaf rushes up the steps. The two lovers are locked in
O Sun! Life! Eternity!
Love is the light of the world!
Our infinite happiness
laughs and sings in the Sun!
Glory to you! Glory to you!
Of course, because happy endings always feel great, we are delighted for them, even though in my humble opinion, still a part of me, still thinks Liu seems to know him better, and loves him exactly as he is, but I am no love expert; and of course these are fun conversations to share with friends as one leaves the MET opera house!
And this dazzling, stunningly beautiful opera, also brings to mind, a beautiful quote by Christopher Morley:
“In every man’s heart there is a secret nerve that answers to the vibrations of beauty”…
Isn’t so true?
And he wrote also “Translations from the Chinese” about adjustment which I have always loved as well, about truth and beauty:
“In your Great City
I see, in jewellers’ windows,
Clocks that tell the guaranteed Correct Time;
And in front of those clocks people always halted
Adjusting their watches.
But suppose there were displayed, beside the street,
Some great poem,
Telling perfect Truth or Beauty,
How many passengers
Would pause to adjust their minds?”
And that’s what this Turandot opera is about, in my mind, it is about trembling and trusting with love and hope, which is expressed so beautifully in “Nessun Dorma”. And that’s what I want to tell, all the main characters of this opera, those are the only things that matter in life: trusting in love and hope that beauty, whatever form it takes, will always prevail!
And that is true even for spys!
Let’s watch an excerpt of “Mission Impossible Rogue Nation” by Christopher McQuarrie (2015), during which our hero, falls in love with another beautiful spy, while “Nessun Dorma” is being sung!
How about that!
And because of course, I still feel for Liu, here are a few last thoughts, for her: I would have liked for her, to try to fight for her love, in various ways, with songs, and humor also.
Because, those always, are marvelous!
First, perhaps with a lovely ballad, about looking in the same direction than the one you love, sometimes one leads, sometimes, it is the other:
So achingly beautiful …
Secondly, I would have told Liu to make her remind “her” Calaf, how much fun and joy they shared together like Julia and Rupert, in this wonderfully funny and great classic slapstick/ witty film: “My Best Friend’s Wedding” by Hogan (1997).
Aren’t they having the best possible time?
Because it is truly a real intimate connection they share:
And for Turandot and her Prince Calaf, I can only wish them, happy joyous times together, such as when watching these four fun “pearls”.
These “pearls” always move me to loads of laughter, and I hope you enjoy them too!
Let’s first watch Burns and Allen: a real couple, professionally, and in their private lives, for years; and frankly, watch their chemistry, charm and joy together, it all just speaks volumes:
Here is another excerpt of the two of them, which is even more endearing:
And if of all that, doesn’t tug at their heart strings, between the heroes, whole hearted laughter, with Carol Burnett, is always a sure thing!
And now let’s watch the full sketch…
Off the wall of course…
And so wonderfully funny…
Eternal butterflies 😊