A Day at the Opera: re-imagining Puccini’s ‘Turandot’

We love the opera for its music and spectacle, but let’s be honest: it has some of the silliest plots you can imagine.


I’m just home from an afternoon at The Met Opera House. No, I haven’t been to New York, but to my local art-house cinema, the Nova, which hosts ‘live’ broadcasts of opera at the Met and theatre from Britain. For a fraction of the price of a ticket to a live performance one gets the best seat in the house for some of the best opera and theatre in the world. The opera broadcasts come with subtitles (I might know Italian and French, but I can only pick up a few words here and there of sung dialogue) and the cinema supplies a synopsis.

I love listening to opera, especially Mozart and Puccini, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s best not to know the story because, let’s be honest, operas have some of the silliest plots you could hear. Mozart’s operas have a few silly moments, but they are generally light-hearted and the magnificent music overcomes any hiccups, but as the opera tends towards verismo, the absurdities become more and more manifest and more and more distracting.

Germont with Violetta
Germont does a number on Violetta

Take Verdi’s La Traviata. After stalking her for many months, young Alfredo is introduced to Violetta, a Parisian courtesan who is suffering from consumption. (Victorians loved to kill off their heroines with tuberculosis. The disease was rife in all classes and, to Victorian tastes, it made a woman more beautiful the closer she came to death — all that pallor, pink cheeks and bright feverish eyes.) His devotion wins her heart (already a little perverse, but we’ll let it ride) and she agrees to live in the country with him. In the second act, Alfredo’s father Germont, comes to the house and coerces Violetta to leave Alfredo so that the scandal of their relationship doesn’t ruin his daughter’s hopes of marriage. To stop Alfredo from trying to persuade her to stay, Violetta tells him she is going back to an old lover. Alfredo finds her in Paris and, in front of all her friends, humiliates her and calls her a whore. Of course, in the third act he understands and forgives her, but it’s too late and she succumbs to TB in a cascade of beautiful music.

At the end of the second act, I was furious. I didn’t know which face I wanted to slap first. Germont’s for being such a bastard, Violetta’s for being so easily persuaded, or Alfredo’s for being so gullible.

Mimi alone in the snow
Mimi disillusioned by Rodolfo

Then there’s Puccini’s La Bohème. Mimi, a consumptive seamstress, and Rodolfo, an impecunious poet, fall in love, and move into his Paris garret together. However, their relationship falls apart and she moves in with another, richer man, despite still being in love with Rodolfo. Later she overhears Rodolfo admit to his best friend that he still loves Mimi, but he knew she might die if she stayed in his draughty garret, so what did he decide to do? Not try to find a better place to live, perhaps getting a real job to pay for it. Not move her to a warmer climate like Italy or the south of France. No, he decided to be such a bastard to her that she would be forced to leave him. Nice one, Rodolfo.

But today’s opera, Puccini’s Turandot, despite including the divine aria, Nessun Dorma, must really take the cake for silly plots:

In order to get revenge for the murder of a distant ancestress, Turandot, the daughter of the emperor of China, refuses to marry unless the suitor can answer three riddles she sets him. If he fails, he is executed. Princes from all over Asia have tried and failed and suffered the most gruesome of deaths.

The opera begins with the execution of the Prince of Persia and among the crowd of onlookers, Calaf discovers his long-lost father, Timur, the deposed king of Tartary, who is blind and has wandered to Peking under the care of the slave girl Liu. Liu has served the old king because she is in love with Calaf who once smiled at her. When Calaf sees Turandot presiding over the execution, he immediately falls in love with her and determines to marry her. He will not be dissuaded by Liu or his father or by the court ministers, Ping, Pang and Pong. (I kid you not.)

Calaf presents himself to the court, where even the emperor tries to dissuade him. The emperor himself can do nothing to stop the proceedings because of an oath he has sworn. When Calaf succeeds in answering her riddles, Turandot still refuses to marry him, declaring she will belong to no man. To try to win her love, Calaf offers her another chance to escape him. He tells her that if she can find out his name by dawn she can execute him.

Princess Turandot
Princess Turandot

Turandot decrees that no one in Peking will sleep until his name is discovered. Timur and Liu are captured and brought before Turandot and Calaf. Turandot orders that they be tortured to reveal his name, but, so as not to betray the man she loves, Liu kills herself, much to the old king’s despair. Left alone, Calaf impetuously kisses Turandot and she finally feels emotions. Sure of winning her, Calaf reveals his identity. Triumphant, Turandot summons the whole court, but instead of executing Calaf, she declares that his name is ‘Love’ and much to everyone’s relief, they are happily married.

Despite the trappings of Imperial China, the story bears little relationship to Chinese culture or history. No Chinese emperor would have given his daughter such power. Given the size of his harem, he would have had dozens of them, and he would consider them little more than gifts to give as wives to neighbouring chieftains to win their loyalty. And one would imagine that letting his daughter execute princes from all the surrounding kingdoms would play havoc with the emperor’s foreign relations.

The motivation of the story is based on love at first sight, a western romantic construct if ever there was one. A Tartary prince, a man who could have as many wives and concubines as he wanted, would not have interpreted such a feeling as love, but as lust, and while he may have followed through in ordinary circumstances, there is no way he would risk his life to win a woman, or have allowed her to humiliate and threaten his father before his very eyes.

In the off-stage interview, the soprano who sang Turandot admitted that the lead characters could come across as ‘jerks’ if not carefully handled. Unfortunately even the mighty Met fell into this trap, not helped by a tenor who had no idea of how to act — he couldn’t even manage eye contact.

Turandot’s cruelty and heartlessness are essential to the story, but it would help if the male lead could come across as honourable and heroic. Instead he comes across as selfish, thoughtless and impetuous. Having only just been re-united with his long suffering father — and, for opera, it was the most perfunctory re-union you could imagine — he immediately defies and abandons him to pursue Turandot. He sets Turandot the challenge of discovering his name without a thought that he has now left two people who love him vulnerable to a woman he knows would not hesitate to torture and kill to get her way. He stands by mute while she threatens them both and has nothing much to say when Liu kills herself. And, even after seeing all that, he still wants to make love to Turandot. A jerk, indeed.

Italian operas were usually based on well-known plays, so the audiences’ expectations had to be met, and, given the cumbersome constrictions of opera, much of the finer detail of the plot had to be compressed to reach the required ending. However, as with adaptations to film, opera librettists did have some lee-way to make changes.

In fashioning Turandot, its librettists, Adami and Simoni, had already taken certain liberties. The opera is based on an 18th century play by Gozzi, a satirical, commedia dell’arte style take on a story from The 1001 Nights. From the story come the fairy tale elements — the cruel princess, her indulgent father, love at first sight, the ordeal of the three riddles, the challenge to discover the stranger’s name and the happy ending in the princess’s submission and marriage to the stranger. The play introduces satirical and comic elements. Stock characters from Italian comedy implausibly find themselves in ‘legendary’ Peking and comment on the action directly to the audience.

Calaf with Ping, Pang and Pong
Calaf with Ping, Pang and Pong

While the play is a broad comedy, the opera is meant to be tragic, albeit with a happy ending. Even the characters inspired by the commedia clowns, Ping, Pang and Pong, while introducing a more light-hearted element to the opera as they comment on the characters and action, are not as broadly comic as their predecessors. While eliminating much of the action and several of the characters from the play, the opera introduces some new elements, such as the presence of Timur, Calaf’s father, their unexpected re-union, Liu, the slave girl who has been Timur’s guide, and their torture at Turandot’s hands.

Having come as far as they have towards a more realistic and tragic plot for the opera, it’s a pity they didn’t take it a few steps further into the realm where a modern audience could accept the story and characters without having to forgo all sense and logic.

Princess Turandot and the ordeal of the three riddles are a given, but some effort could have been made to make Calaf and his acceptance of the challenge a little more realistic. Perhaps he could attempt to marry Turandot in order to get the emperor’s support to regain his father’s throne. One could accept a young man’s defying his father in order to give him what he most wants. He could fall in love with Turandot after making his declaration, giving him even more incentive to succeed.

The opera gives no real explanation for why Calaf and Timur are in Peking, or how they were separated. One can guess that their separation was an excuse to create Liu. After all, every Italian opera has to have a ‘good’ soprano who loves and dies tragically. However, Gozzi’s play already had a character who could play that part: Adelma, one of Turandot’s slave girls, who knew Calaf in happier times. It would also be better if Calaf at least believes that his father is safe from Turandot when he sets her the challenge to find out his name.

So, let’s rewrite the scenario as it should have been:

Any prince seeking to marry Princess Turandot must answer three riddles. If he fails, he will die. Among the crowd watching the execution of the latest contender are Calaf and his father, Timur. Timur was once the king of Tartary, but has lost his throne to a usurper. They have come to Peking to get the emperor’s help to regain Timur’s lost throne, but they fear that their enemy has spies in the city, so they must conceal their identities and mission.

Calaf seeks out the court ministers, Ping, Pang and Pong, and pleads for their help in getting an audience with the emperor. However, because Calaf cannot reveal who he is or why he wants the audience, they cannot help him. Determined to get the emperor’s ear Calaf decides to make an attempt to marry Turandot.

After urging Timur to leave Peking in case he fails and his fate is meted out to his father as well, Calaf presents himself to the princess to accept her challenge, describing himself only as a stranger from a distant land. Turandot haughtily tries to discourage him, but eventually accepts his suit. As they are talking, Adelma, one of Turandot’s slave girls, seems to recognise Calaf.

Calaf with his father Timur
Calaf with his father Timur

When the princess has gone Calaf acknowledges her beauty and believes there is a loving soul beneath the veneer of cruelty. He realises that he has fallen in love with her, which gives him even more incentive to survive the ordeal. After he leaves, Adelma, who has been hovering in the shadows watching him, declares her love for the young prince who smiled at her once, long ago.

Even after Calaf answers all three riddles correctly, the princess still refuses to marry him. Declaring that she will not marry a man who will not tell her who he is, she demands to know his name. Unwilling to reveal his identity until they are safely married, Calaf refuses to tell her. Turandot says she will only marry him if he gives her his name. He has until dawn, or she will have him executed.

While Turandot decrees that no one will sleep in Peking until she has learnt the stranger’s name, Calaf realises that his only hope is to win Turandot’s heart. Turandot arrives followed by her soldiers holding Timur captive. Turandot declares that her spies have discovered that Timur is the stranger’s father and she threatens to torture him to reveal his son’s name. Calaf denies the old man is his father, and seeing the danger, Adelma, who is attending Turandot, declares that the stranger is speaking the truth. The old man doesn’t know who the stranger is, but she is the only one who does. She reminds Calaf of where they met and just as he recognises her, she takes a dagger and stabs herself so as not to betray the man she loves.

Defeated and moved by her slave’s death, Turandot dismisses her court and speaks to Calaf alone. She explains her motives for her refusal to marry, but wishes she was capable of the love even a slave girl can feel. Hoping now that he can get through to her, Calaf tells her his story, but concedes she still has the power to execute him and throws himself on her mercy. Turandot summons the whole court, but instead of executing Calaf, she declares that his name is ‘Love’ and much to everyone’s relief, they are happily married.

Now, doesn’t that make a little more sense?


© Pauline Montagna 2019


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