Notes on Now and Then

Once released from his imagination, Puccini could find no way to wrestle back control of the epic folktale that was to be his last opera. The maddening challenge of how to summon catharsis consumed him for months. Suddenly, on November 29, 1924, the legendary titan of post-Verdian music theatre died from complications arising from the treatment of a particularly pernicious form of throat cancer. Score and libretto to Turandot were left unfinished, the distressing issue of how to resolve the knotty piece disturbingly unresolved.

Referencing the 36 pages of scrambled sketches Puccini had left behind, a seasoned mainstream composer, Franco Alfano, was hired to engineer a finale. No one was entirely satisfied with the results, least of all Puccini friend and colleague, Arturo Toscanini.

April 25, 1926. La Scala premiere. Act III. Chorus: Liù! Poesia! Sudden silence as the orchestra unexpectedly rested. Toscanini turned to the audience and spoke. Qui il maestro posò la sua penna. (“Here the maestro laid down his pen.”) There would be nothing more from singers or musicians that evening. The second performance featuring a considerably shortened version of Alfano’s less than elegant contribution, heavily edited by the famed conductor, opened the next night. Toscanini did not appear on the podium.

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Given the confined parameters of character and conflict, Puccini’s perverse narrative of seduction and obsession replete with dark psychological overtones has little chance of expanding much beyond its shallow story arc. The opera’s climax is almost predestined to crumble under the weight of Alfano’s heavy-handed melodrama. The music builds. Turandot, a remorseless killer possessed by the spirit of an ancient ancestor raped and murdered by a foreign prince, is instantly rescued from a bloody cycle of vengeance by surrendering to a swaggering suitor from a faraway land. Emotional legitimacy and theatrical rationale collapse.

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Principal characters both trouble and fascinate. Rooted in historically opposing precepts. 19th century convention vs post World War I disillusionment. Romanticism vs verismo.

Turandot: Bloody death machine. Programmed for perpetual terror. Lethal. Robotic.  Repressed conscience (and consciousness) strangles her humanity. Early critics of Turandot, commenting on Puccini’s eponymous anti-heroine, were struck by the Princess’ brutal, emotionally sterile modernist air. A hundred years later, the icy anti-heroine still chills.

Liù: Archetypal Puccinian piccola donna. A more familiar persona to the maestro’s devoted audience. Humble, open-hearted, self-sacrificing. A willing victim of fate. An anachronism from a bygone age.

Calaf: Sly opportunist, outrageously egocentric, self-seeking schemer. Tireless showman. Pedlar of chaos. Supremely stereotypically male.

For better or worse, all are impossible to ignore.

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The serial murders of the Princess’ witless suitors prior to curtain rise are arguably as much the result of cold-blooded political machination as the casual consequence of the mythic tre enigmi game that impels the opera forward. A vicarious blood sport designed to distract a restless mob from the brutal facts of ruthless autocracy.

The popularity of the newly born Fascist movement led by Mussolini was on the rise in Italy at the time Puccini first put pen to manuscript paper in the early 1920s. The fast-living, risk-taking composer was anything but naïve. Opera, like any art form, is governed by an external locus. Turandot is awash with fanaticism, intolerance and xenophobia.

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— An ugly domestic scandal and a seemingly impossible centre of good —

On January 23, 1909, Puccini’s housemaid, Doria Manfredi committed suicide by swallowing poison in the wake of public accusations from the composer’s wife, Elvira, of having had an affair with the notoriously unfaithful maestro. Not only were the allegations patently untrue but later evidence emerged that, rather than lash out in anger at her accuser, Doria had kept secret from prying eyes first-hand knowledge of a grubby turn of the century family secret. Elvira’s daughter and La fanciulla del West librettist, Guelfo Civinini, had been casual sexual partners for some time. The depth of Doria’s loyalty coupled, no doubt, with by no means inappreciable pangs of guilt, haunted Puccini to the grave. Almost certainly in mind when creating a moral counterpoint to the vindictive, vengeful Princess. Doria reflected in Liù.

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As egregious as the cultural appropriation implicit in Puccini’s mid-career hit, Madama Butterfly (1904) may be from a 21st century perspective, the scale of objectification, however much a product of Puccini’s time, reaches a crescendo with Turandot. Little of the studied analysis of traditional recordings that formed, however questionable, a perceived point of entry to Cio-Cio San’s world influenced the composer’s working protocol when drafting themes and motifs emblematic of the Middle Kingdom. Faux ethnographic perspectives are everywhere. Little wonder Beijing banned performances in the People’s Republic until 1998.

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As the 20th century advanced, Puccini felt increasingly under pressure to meet the pace of change in the operatic arena. Many supporters, music publisher and surrogate father figure Giulio Ricordi among them, urged the composer to explore new genres.

He experiments in New York.

1910 — La fanciulla del West, a Broadway-style frontier yarn. 1918 — Il trittico, a brisk trilogy of unrelated one-act pieces.

Dissatisfied and feeling more than a little geographically displaced, Puccini returned to the more familiar realm of older established forms. Deft nods to Wagner rich in chromatic colour and surging tonality like Tosca (1900) resurfaced in Turandot.  Broad three act drama was his calling, Continental Grand Opera his voice.

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The Canadian Opera Company’s current Turandot, a 2018 co-production with Teatro Real Madrid, Houston Grand Opera and the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre of Vilnius, takes an already problematic opera to an entirely new level. Abandoning any attempt to evoke an authentic Far Eastern aesthetic, director Robert Wilson’s slick, minimalist art design and stark staging strips every molecule of vitality from the sprawling blockbuster Puccini had laboured so long to construct. Ironically, the dilemma of how to shore up Turandot’s shaky credibility is achieved. At a grotesque price.

All point of contact between characters is avoided. Nothing demonstrably ventured, nothing dramatically lost. Blocking is endlessly static, cast and chorus assembled virtually curtain to curtain in long lifeless lines. Tableau substitutes for performance. Primitive gesture and mime, curiously ritualized, replaces action. A sharp whiff of satire (or comedy of the absurd) contaminates the atmosphere.

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Turandot’s ubiquitous trio of bumbling Mandarins, Ping, Pang and Pong, rebranded here as Jim, Bob and Bill grinning, dark-suited, bobble-headed technocrats, are hugely annoying. Apart from their existence as infuriating tools of distraction, any point to their boundless demonstrations of bizarre buffoonery is unfathomable. Reason is not, it seems, a feature of Wilson’s dramaturgy.

The colossal metaphoric tangle of neural pathways that forms this massively puzzling Turandot’s only substantial three-dimensional set wearily overstates the obvious.

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The refusal to directly engage with the implied consequences of character and libretto is as frustrating as it is cynical.

Try as they might, singers can not fully redeem this production. Deprived of tangible context, principals struggle to achieve the necessary deep dives into character and situation that the opera’s Puccini-crafted material demands.

Soprano Joyce El-Khoury’s touching Liù is allowed scarcely a whimper while supposedly being tortured. Tenor Sergey Skorokhodov’s somewhat stifled Calaf is permitted only an occassional glance in the direction of the Princess. Imperious Turandot, bravely voiced by soprano Tamara Wilson, with the exception of one lofty appearance, is often just another face in the courtly crowd.

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Two high notes.

The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra led by visiting conductor Carlo Rizzi plays with sheer magnificence.

The Canadian Opera Company Chorus and the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, even when compelled by Wilson to inexplicably sing offstage, utterly thrills.

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Above: Tamara Wilson as Turandot and Sergey Skorokhodov as Calaf  in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Turandot, 2019. Photo: Michael Cooper