Gaudy, glitzy and gargantuan. That’s what the critics have called the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Puccini’s “Turandot.”
The spectacular three-act opera will be transmitted via satellite at 11 a.m. Saturday at Fort Lewis College. Continuing The MET Live In HD programs, the college will screen “Turandot” in what has to be the most sumptuous production this season.
Originally designed in 1987 by Italian filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli, the sets and costumes suggest a Hollywood extravaganza. Zeffirelli’s luxurious production put molto grande back in grand opera.
In Acts I and II, you’ll see an Italian wedding-cake version of the exterior then interior of an ancient Chinese palace. The last act takes place at night in an imperial garden, complete with a moon, soldiers, a brave prisoner, death, and a funeral procession. What more do you want? A romantic ending?
Guess what? You get that, too.
Puccini’s final opera was almost completed in 1924 when the aging composer died. He left sketches for the last 20 minutes or so. They included critical plot twists including a suicide and triumphant music for the inevitable happy ending. The opera was completed by Alfano, a composer selected by none other than Arturo Toscanini. The maestro conducted the premiere at La Scala on April 25, 1926.
The fairytale about a cruel Chinese princess has a fairytale history that includes plays, operas and movies. First seen in a French compilation of so-called Persian tales – no, not that one – the 1710 French collection was titled “Les Mille et un jours.” Later in that century, Carlo Gozzi, an Italian commedia del’arte playwright, recast it as satire.
In turn, Gozzi’s 1772 comedy was seen and translated by Friedrich Schiller. In 1802, the ur-Romantic German playwright removed the comedy, heightened the love story, and spread a moralizing glaze over all. His title was “The Chinese Sphinx, a dramatic oddity in Four Acts.”
That’s the version Puccini adapted for his last opera.
Turandot (yes, you pronounce the final “t”) is a fictional Chinese princess who hates men. She has devised a scheme to entice and dispatch all suitors. They must answer three riddles to be considered marriage material. If they fail, they are decapitated and their heads put on display. The opera opens with this grisly bit of news. Later we learn why Turandot hates men in a compelling memory aria.
When Calaf, an exiled prince, arrives, he is so struck by Turandot’s beauty, of course, that he takes the riddle challenge. He wins and poses a riddle of his own. That triggers the famous tenor aria “Nessun Dorma,” nobody sleeps tonight.
A sub-plot involving a faithful slave girl turns ugly, apparently an addition Puccini suggested to his librettists. It accounts for music to counter the glorious tenor aria. Also in contrast, a little light peaks through when three Chinese courtiers, Ping, Pang and Pong, I’m not kidding, try to persuade the prince to leave.
Sounds like Gilbert and Sullivan slipped under the tent. Ah, the problems of creating an opera by adapting a tragedy based on a comedy based on a made-up fairytale.
Running time is three hours and 35 minutes. Bring a thermos and a sandwich. Or, better yet, Chinese takeout.