Turandot is a disgusting opera that is beyond redemption

21 September 2013

9:00 AM

21 September 2013

9:00 AM


Royal Opera House, in rep until 10 March

It’s a cynical start to the Royal Opera’s season to have this 1984 production of Puccini’s last opera Turandot. Not that a new production would improve things, whatever it was like. Turandot is an irredeemable work, a terrible end to a career that had included three indisputable masterpieces and three less evident ones, counting Il Trittico as one. Any operatic composer who gets to the stage, as Puccini had, of searching through one play or novel after another, dissatisfied with any subject he is offered, should almost certainly give up. The greatest and most successful either produce operas like cows produce milk, Handel and Donizetti being obvious examples, or have them wrested from them by the sheer impact of their experiences and the imperative need to give them artistic form, Wagner being the clearest case.

Puccini’s agony was that he had become, and knew it, more sophisticated and canny a composer the longer he carried on, but he had already created works in which his favourite subjects, tormented and suffering women, and the various kinds of men who caused their suffering or who suffered because they did, were exhausted. So his masterpiece Butterfly was eventually followed by the medium-high camp of The Girl of the Golden West, then there is the moderately charming operetta La rondine, and the Trittico, which has lots to be said for it, but doesn’t reach the height of the Big Three. Turandot had some of the right constituents for him: hopeless and ignored love, frigidity, torture and an exotic setting, enabling him to employ unusual instruments. But fatally it has a happy ending, which Puccini couldn’t really believe in, and his own death prevented him from working it out as painstakingly as he had the rest of the piece — not that it could have saved an opera that is already disgusting.

The character who has most to sing is, unusually, the tenor hero, Calaf. At Covent Garden the role is taken by Marco Berti, a stentorian tenor in the del Monaco tradition, and one who stands and delivers without acting or expression. There isn’t a lot you can do with Calaf, who has never noticed that Liù is in love with him, and who stands by as she is tortured by Turandot’s henchmen in order to reveal his name, when all he needs to do is to tell her and take whatever consequences there may be. And once Liù has killed herself because she can’t stand any more pain, Calaf forgets about her, and about his frail old father Timur who just disappears, and turns all his attention on Turandot. Not that he loves her, although she climaxes by telling him his name is Amor. Given the extremely brief and unpleasant relationship between them up to that point, love can only mean lust, as it usually does for Puccini’s men, but not for his women.

If we judge by the music, Puccini was more inspired, and predictably, by Liù than he was by the two central characters. Her two arias, which are sung in this production by the winningly diminutive Eri Nakamura, take him on to home ground, but that isn’t where he wants to be, so she is really an irrelevance. True, Turandot asks her how she can bear to be tortured, and Liù explains that it is because she loves Calaf, but that only leads Turandot to command the guards ‘Tear the secret from her!’ so when Turandot finally admits to loving Calaf, Julian Budden is right in saying that this is ‘hormonal, a case of nature reasserting itself after years of repression’. And he goes on to say, ‘Only a miracle of musical transcendence could redeem the two principals; and that is something that lay outside Puccini’s range.’ Yet he concludes, ‘Turandot remains unique and unrivalled,’ which in a sense is true, but not as Budden means it. But every Puccini authority raves about its bitonality, the influence of the most avant-garde composers on it, and so forth, as if the surprising harmonies and orchestration could justify this artful rubbish. And for all its dissonances and adventurous sounds, after a few bars anyone would recognise its composer, it’s just that he’s put on a different suit.

Turandot is played by the American Lise Lindstrom, making her Royal Opera début. She looks good, she sounds implacable, she sings the role worldwide, and one hopes her voice survives that and is soon put to more worthy purposes. The production, a full-scale dance-and-song affair, certainly has plenty to keep the eye busy, only emphasising by its unique sumptuousness the void that lies behind.

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  • LaurenceGlavin

    If there’s one opera in the basic repertoire that I actively dislike it is “Il Tabarro” from “Il Trittico”. Sordid story, nothing memorable about the music. Not crazy about “Suor Angleica” either, but “Gianni Schcchi” is brilliant. In some places, the latter is produced without its “Il Trittico” companions, often with another one-act opera.

    • scarf-ace

      I don’t much care for Suor Angelica but I love Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi. I was told of an opera house that mounted a double-bill of Schicchi following, of all things, Richard Strauss’ Salomé. My storyteller left the theatre behind two elderly ladies, one who declared to the other, “I don’t know about you, but I liked the second act a WHOLE lot better”. 😉

      I don’t know if I’d go as far as Mr Tanner and declare Turandot “disgusting”, but it is a problem opera for certain. In my imaginary mental scenario where Puccini lived for a few more years, he’d give up on Turandot realizing it was dramatically inept, and recycle the music into a more worthy work. Seriously, with the exception of the three councillors and Timur, none of the characters exhibit anything recognizable as actual human behavior or emotions.

      “But…but… Nessun Dorma!” everyone cackles. Yeah, whatever. It’s a good tenor aria, not Puccini’s best, not his worst. It stands out like a sore thumb.

      • LaurenceGlavin

        A columnist named Ralph deToledano, who was mainly a political pundit but opined on a multiplicity of topics, wrote that “Nessun dorma” was the VERY LAST GASP of melody-oriented opera by anybody. I guess he never listened to Richard Strauss’s later works, like “Arabella”.

        • scarf-ace

          Or Menotti, or Floyd, or Bernstein…American opera of the 20th century is one giant treasure trove of melody. Most people dismiss it as “unsophisticated” for this exact reason.

      • Roca Rule

        Do you actually understand art. Turandot’s character reflect emotions but not in a real way. Puccini was inclined towards drama. I take Puccini’s dramatic style on par with color saturation in some surreal movies where the director is telling you what he wants you to see by enhancing certain colors but everything else in the background stays more real and neutral. From the people (chorus), the emperor, the prince, the princess, the slave girl, the father, and the trio of ping pan and pong all of them exhibit emotions to a fault. This emotions exist and are real, like hate, love, lust, longing, commitment etcetera to the point of becoming absurd, but that is Puccini for you.

  • steve patriarca

    I am glad to find my opinion of Turandot shared by at least one serious writer! It was unfinished at Puccini’s death in 1924 and should have died with him; the contemporary work “Die Gelbe Jacke” – also growing from the fascination with China.- is a much finer opera. Now known as “Das Land des Lächelns” or “The Land of Smiles” it is surely worthier than the Puccini? But the Royal Opera would be far too snobby to rate it so. Notwithstanding the fact that its Tauberlied “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” is infinitely more beautiful than the popular “Nessun Dorma” from Turnadot.- in my experience at the point in the opera when it comes, it is a necessary injunction to the entire audience.

    • scarf-ace

      I once set my alarm clock to wake me up on alternating days with “Nessun Dorma” and “Pourquoi me réveiller” from Werther.

      Yes, I have a silly sense of humor.

  • AJ

    meh, this would be more satisfying if he dissed THE BIG THREEEEE *genuflecting* along with it. Most overrated composer ever.

  • Britalianissima

    I have no idea how you can be so disparaging of the opera that contains in my opinion, one of the best tenor arias, ever- Nessun Dorma,’ Do you understand Italian? If not, do you think that maybe this might hinder your appreciation of Turandot? It is one of my favourite operas.

    • post_x_it

      Nessun Dorma is a fantastically catchy tune. It never fails to rouse the masses when belted out by a fat Italian in a football stadium.
      Does it make Turandot a great opera? No. I do understand Italian, and I share Mr Tanner’s opinion without reservation. Who, by the way, does not deny that it has some great music in it.

  • Carpathia

    I have never read such a poisonous and arrogant review. How you can describe the Maestro’s magificent opera ‘Turandot’ as ‘disgusting’ , ‘artful rubbish , ‘terrible end to a career’ ‘iredeemable’, is beyond me and the legions of opera fans around the world who love this great opera. I have to defend Puccini from your ‘disgusting’ comments. Turandot is a truly magnificent piece of work from the greatest opera composer ever. The music is so beautiful and touches the audiences hearts on so many levels – and ‘Nessun’ Dorma’ is surely the most loved and beautiful aria ever written .It is even more poignant and heartbreaking listening to this knowing it was virtually the last aria he composed before he died. But what an opera he has left us – full of drama, passion and spectacle. Puccini wrote with his heart on his sleeve and that is why people love his music and operas so much – his music touches the audiences hearts. That is why when you say Turandot is a ‘terrible end to a career’ I say ‘rubbish!’ you don’t know what you are talking about and you grossly insult the memory and great work of Giacomo Puccini. Turandot is a glorious finale from the Maestro and the Royal Opera House production was superb and a perfect choice for the season opener.

  • William Coggan

    When one considers the orchestration, the characterisation and sheer aggression of ‘Turandot’, I deem this review not only sulky but downright wrong; and this comes from someone, who would gladly go home after the first act of ‘Boheme’.

    Firstly, the plots of the earlier big three are all suspect in that Romantic opera sort of way. Plus, if Mr Tanner truly thinks hiding one’s spare Aces in one’s knicker elastic is ‘medium camp’, I doubt he’s ever experienced a full flush.

    Secondly, if we’re going to point the finger, then Toscanini is the guilty party for wielding the blue pencil through Alfano’s intentions. Yes, we will never know what Puccini would have done – and he agonised over finessing the reconciliation between Turandot and Calaf at the time of his death – but Alfano’s full ending goes a lot further towards achieving the transition. Even today, 99 times out of 100, Butcher Toscanini’s ax is allowed to fall and we all jolt as the foot slips off the clutch.

    Don’t be a prude, Mr Tanner. Please petition the Garden to restore the full ending to ‘Turandot’ and then see then whether the music’s dissonance extends to the plot.

  • M.

    Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; those who can’t teach, become critics; and those who can’t even become critics, write for the spectator.

    What operas have you composed, Mr. Tanner?

  • Robert Fischer

    I am so glad not being the only one feeling mad about Turandots Plot: Only if you are not at all interested in reflecting what’s going on between the characters on stage (but why then going to the opera?) you probably may have time to simply listen to the music. (Then I would prefer listening to a concert.) What is wrong with the story, is lucidly written in Michael Tanners article, and as far as I can see here, no comment has one point against his argumentation; they mostly make it a “like Puccini or not”-decision. I like Puccini, but this opera plot is so terrible bad, it IS disgusting. To add only one more point to Mr. Tanners article: Why is it the Tenor singing the most famous aria Nessun dorma – who shouldn’t be interested in “nobody sleeping”. The Soprano, Turandot, IS interested, but instead threatening with death penalty, like chinese princesses always do …

  • Chris Reich

    Oddly, if you pick up any collection of “Opera’s Greatest Hits” it will be dominated by pieces from Turandot. I came to opera because of a PBS showing of the Met’s Turandot. It stunned me in it’s beauty. If we use plot convolution as a criteria for an opera’s worthiness, we’ll have to toss out much of Verdi’s work and most of Wagner’s. I mean really, a girl is madly in love with sea captain from hell who her father hooks her up with in exchange for gold? And certainly Il Trovatore is no masterpiece of cohesion.

  • mutchdisqus

    Just saw it (again) at the Met this afternoon. Turandot has never moved me, but still I watch it, and took the kids. Why? Generally speaking, the greatest artists are interesting even in their lesser works, even in their failures. When the ground shifts out from under them, and they’re no longer on their ‘home turf’, as you described, different sides of their ability and character emerge.

    I don’t think it’s right or fair that the opera includes other people’s arrangements, to provide the ending he wasn’t able to compose. I think it’s very likely that the drama would increase significantly if Puccini’s own death were to be incorporated indirectly, by ending the performance at the point where his finished composition trails off. We would then be left to wonder, what exactly in Puccini’s bag of tricks would he have left over, to finish this latest ‘masterpiece’? Would he have been able to do it, or not? As it is currently performed, it ends flat, predictable, and undramatic. Would Puccini have settled for that? Maybe, but maybe … not. Maybe he would have spent another year turning it over until … something better.

    • polidorisghost

      On Monday I saw the Met version at the cinema here in England.
      Tanner’s complaint about the moral void in the opera is perfectly reasonable: The longer you think about it the more obnoxious the ending seems, or as my wife put it “Bit of a bummer for the girl” (Liu, that is) and the idea that you can seduce an implacable woman with but a single kiss is too absurd even for the most melodramatic of fantasies (I’ve tried and it doesn’t work).
      However, I spent three hours listening to some the most beautiful music that has ever been written and I’m prepared to judge Turandot by that alone.

    • Callipygian

      You took the kids? Because you’re a goat, presumably.

  • Callipygian

    D-mn hormones, I say. I’ve conquered my female ones, and those I can’t conquer I manage actively. I knew a man that said the most ‘fun’ thing about humans is our hormones. He’s a world expert on human origins and skeletal biology, but he’s also a lifelong Democrat, so what does that tell you? Dems by their nature take their cues from their navels and not from their heads (or as the Bernie Sanders staffer exhorted voters in Iowa: vote with your heart, not your head [in my experience, Democrats never vote with either, nor can they tell the two apart]).

    The best advice I could give any woman is: s-xually, men aren’t worth it. The man you’re looking at isn’t worth it. Find something else in life to make you happy, and a nice companion of either s-x or of different species (e.g. Boxer dog — they are the best). I did!

  • Joseph Rouleau