Giacomo Puccini's "Turandot"
Updated on March 16, 2010, 1:33 AM - Written by Tim Buttner
First let me comment on how beautiful the Metropolitan Opera is, and how amazed I was by the architecture of the Lincoln Center. Truly a mesmerizing location to travel to for the opera, and then to witness the opera from balcony seats that I paid $70 per seat for was absolutely astounding. The set design was grandiose beyond anything that the Philadelphia Opera Company could present, and I had seen La Boheme, Rigoletto, and L'Italiana in Algeri there. I don't have anything against the oldest opera house in the country, nor the presentation of the music, but there is simply something about the decadence of New York City and the amount of money they are able to sink into their opera. Giacomo Puccini's final opera is one of my favorites and it was a great pleasure to see and hear it live as it will live with me for all of my life.
The room erupted with applause as the conductor stepped out into the orchestra pit and took a bow, and applause rose again when the curtain rose to reveal the people of Peking as the music began. It began with a short overture that set the mood and introduced the Chinese sounds that Puccini had worked into the composition. Puccini works in the chorus of the crowd who meet an announcement from the mandarin. Instantly I'm aware that the music is homophonic, and the instrumental works as the incident music to the action that takes place on stage and as a compliment to the voices of the people of Peking and our main characters.
When we are introduced to Timur, the disposed Tarter king, and his faithful servant Liù it is obvious that the singer playing her will steal the show. Indeed she got a standing ovation at the end of the show because she gave an absolutely devastating and beautiful performance. We met Calaf, and are given the exposition in wonderfully sung recitative. Puccini certainly knew best how to incorporate the voices of crowds into his operas, giving soul to the setting. The change in dynamics and timbre create a lovely variation as we move from beat to beat in the story's plot points. As the first victim emerges, there is wonderful use of the voices of children, the crowd, and Calaf along with the instrumentation as we're introduced to the alluring Turandot. A theme, or motif, of the opera is introduced when Calaf lays his eyes on her and her beauty, striking him with love. Calaf goes into a brief aria, "La grazia!" As the crowd abandons the square.
A favorite song of mine is when the three characters of Ping, Pang, and Pong are introduced with "Fermo, che fai?" The music picks up in tempo and has a wonderful structure as the three sing in harmony with Calaf trying to deter him from ringing the gong. Despite the Western styling, it has a very Chinese sound to the instrumentation and how the incident music plays. The three of them serve as a perfect contrast to the grim and morbid sound of the crowd, as they sing with more flourishment.
Liù, as I stated before, steals the act when she breaks out in her aria "Signore, ascolta!" The applause after this aria was full of fervor, as she hit her notes with such perfection. The aria was heart-wrenching, and I think the orchestra played their accompaniment better because of her talent. Calaf's "Non piangere , Liù!" was also a wonderful triplet because of her talent. As we led into the end of the first act the music swelled up with all voices and instrumentation as we hit a reoccurring motif. The applause and cheers were strong as the curtains closed and Calaf, Liù, and Timur stepped out to take a bow.
The second act was divided into two scenes, and the first focused on Ping, Pong, and Pang. I won't stay on it for long, other than to say that the style introduced in the first act remains consistent with the three of them. I must say that the set change from the first scene to the second was one of the most unbelievable set changes I've ever witnessed. A screen rose into the rafters to reveal a set behind it that stretched into the back of the stage, using part of what was in the first scene and part of it was elevated up with the screen. It was amazing, and the music transitioned into a formal hall of a queen and was extremely majestic and amazing. Here a crowd was gathered and we again hear Puccini's use of the crowd. The hall managed to retain the Chinese feeling in the instrumentation as we came back to the motif familiar to us as it hit a loud hailing of the Emperor.
Calaf and the Emperor, Altoum, share some recitative as he tries to talk Calaf out of taking on the challenge. Turandot enters to give her famous aria, "In questa Reggia," which was met with thunderous applause. Here the tonality of her voice was more important than the instrumentation accompanying it in the beginning, but the dynamic of the instrumentation changed as her dynamics rose. The timbre of her aria was chilling, yet lovely, as she hit high piercing notes only a soprano can reach. The aria ended with a wonderful cadence of a duet as Calaf accepted her challenge, and sang in harmony with her.
Each of the riddles were great examples of a trade-off in a duet between a soprano and tenor. Finally Calaf answers all three and is declared a victor to Turandot's distress. We come to the great "Tre enigmi m'hai proposto!" which ends with the hymn of praise to the Emperor and we enter the third act. With "Tre enigma m'hai proposto!" we get a hint at Calaf's coming aria "Nessun Dorma" which has reached such worldwide fame that it was my first introduction to the opera. The second act was naturally met with great applause, especially for Turandot and Calaf when they came out to take a bow.
The third act opens to the announcement of the decree that no one shall sleep, sung by the chorus. Calaf steps out and breaks into his "Nessun Dorma," which was wonderful to finally hear live. It was mesmorizing, and brought shivers up my spine. The music accompaniment is more prevalent during this aria, and works as an aide as the dynamics rise and fall, and rise again. It meets the end with a fantastic cadence with a very familiar motif, and the audience breaks into a thunderous applause with cheers. Ping, Pang, and Pong appear and try to convince Calaf to leave. They tempt him with women and treasure, but he persists that what he seeks is Turandot.
I must skip ahead past Liù's torture to her song "Tu che di gel sei cinta" because it was absolutely captivating. When I say that the soprano singing Liù's part stole the show, this is the song that cemented it. The conductor had to wait because the applause was so thunderous that they couldn't continue. She hit her notes with such perfection and with such grace that we were mesmerized by her every word, every enunciation, that her final sacrifice was that much more dramatic and sad for us. When she stabbed herself it broke the heart of every single person in the audience.
The crowd departs and leaves Calaf and Turandot with a duet between the two. It's fine, however from my understanding this is around where Puccini left the work unfinished due to his death. Calaf kisses Turandot, and melts her icy heart. He reveals his name to her and lets her be in charge of his fate. The scene changes at dawn's break, and we're back inside the palace chamber. The return of the Emperor's hymn is here, and Turandot reveals that her suitor's name is "Love!" The opera ends with a roaring cadence and applause. When the singers step out to take their bow, it is Liù who receives the standing ovation and "Bravos" from the audience.
I will now make notes on instrumentation and anything else that is relevant to the course. I heard woodwinds: flutes, oboes, bassoons, and English horns; strings: violins, cellos, basses, and harps; and percussion: gong, xylophone, bells, wood blocks, bass drum, I think a snare drum, and cymbals. I believe that at times there was antiphony, and think that it was alternating from conjunct to disjunct at different times. For the most part it was syllabic text setting, but at times there as melismatic text setting. Overall I'm very pleased to have gotten to witness this opera.
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