The origins of Turandot is a play from 1762 by Count Carlo Gozzi, based on a 12th century work by the Persian poet Nizami, but the operatic version is set in China instead of Persia.
The composer, Giacomo Puccini, passed away in 1924 before he had a chance to finish it, so it was completed posthumously by Franco Alfano in 1926. The libretto was written by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni and first premiered at the world renowned Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1926. This Opera Australia production staged at the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour in 2016 was conducted by Brian Castles-Onion and directed by Chen Shi-Zheng.
In order to marry princess Turandot (Dragana Radakovic), a suitor must be able to solve three riddles correctly. Failure to do so has severe consequences. An old, exiled king from foreign lands, Timur (Conal Coad), arrives with his loyal servant woman Liù (Hyeseoung Kwon) just in time to witness the latest execution, and to reunite with Prince Calàf (Riccardo Massi). The prince takes one look at the princess and decides he should be next in line to face her riddles.
Pong – John Longmuir
Pang – Graeme Macfarlane
Ping – Luke Gabbedy
Emperor – David Lewis
Mandarin – Gennadi Dubinsky
This discussion contains spoilers for both plot and ending.
Choreographer – Chen Shi-Zheng
Set & Costume Designer – Dan Potra
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Francis: Welcome to the latest Opera Chat, the feature where we watch an opera and then talk about it, or talk around it depending on how much we digress.
Traxy: Which is a lot at times.
F: Which is a lot at times, but the point of this is exercise is to show that opera doesn’t have to be elitist. You can enjoy it even if you never went to college or university, and even if your family don’t live in a mansion.
T: You don’t have to be an upper class twit, basically. Or even have a middle class background. I mean, my mum taught secondary school kids how to knit and sew and my dad worked in a power plant, and yours?
F: Small family restaurant. Nothing extravagant.
T: And yet here we are.
F: Here we are, discussing opera. Did you go to university?
T: Uh, for a month? I don’t think that counts.
F: Well, that’s a month longer than I ever did. I was never greatly suited to the world of academia, but I still love the opera, and on today’s menu we got Puccini’s Turandot.
T: His last opera?
F: That’s right. He died before he could finish it.
T: Is that why it has a happy ending? I mean, poor Liù and all the other executed people aside.
F: No, I think the whole point is that they get together, or the three riddles wouldn’t have been solved. But let’s start at the beginning. I have notes.
T: As do I.
F: We’re back in the harbor of Sydney, at the Handa Opera, so the stage is suitably grand with a big, fire breathing dragon and a tall tower.
T: A tall, spiky tower! It’s about as thorny as the blackberry brambles in our back garden.
F: The way the tower is lit up in different colors it’s difficult to say what the real color of it is. Until the end when it appears to be a dull, metallic gray, same as the dragon.
T: They did a great job with the lighting, don’t you think?
F: Fantastic job.
T: The only thing I found peculiar were the blue dragon banners in the background.
T: They looked – to my mind, at least – like the logo of Blue Dragon, the Asian food company. I’m probably not getting the details of it right, but the yellow background with a blue dragon? I fancy me some Thai curry.
F: Considering the subject matter, wouldn’t Chinese food be more appropriate?
T: I’m always up for Chinese food.
F: I could eat, but let’s talk opera for now.
T: Lest we start another blog feature, “Food Chats”, huh?
F: Which would no doubt be riveting, but another time, perhaps.
T: Okay. So it starts with a dude on a pole hanging from a crane, giving exposition.
F: The Mandarin.
T: I don’t think he was formally introduced.
F: It’s the name of the role.
F: I guess it wouldn’t be Handa Opera without someone dangling from a crane, right?
T: Two people! The Emperor swooping in on a giant, golden sofa hanging from a crane a bit later. It’s the kind of stage where you really need to have ice in your stomach.
F: Stomach? Don’t you mean veins?
T: Do I?
F: I think you do.
T: It’s stomach in Swedish. The keeping calm and collected under pressure. It’s veins in English?
F: Sure is, but I get where you’re coming from. You can’t be afraid of heights if you want to be suspended in mid-air from a crane and still carry a tune.
T: Indeed. Or even that tower! Not just because Turandot sings from the opening near the top, but also because the balcony thing moves up and down. I’d be too worried about falling off if that was me, but Dragana Radakovic maybe has ice in her stomach and her veins!
F: Just look at her dress, Turandot looks like she’s straight out of Frozen.
T: Oh yeah, good point. Icy colours for an icy lady. How symbolic.
F: She does have her reasons.
T: Yes, she does. Although at the same time it’s a bit strange to say that because something happened to someone else hundreds and hundreds of years ago, she’ll refuse to marry now, because that’ll show ‘em! If it was a question of being scared of a similar fate, that makes more sense, but it’s sold as a way of avenging her ancestor.
F: In addition, Calàf answers her riddles and when his name isn’t discovered she’s suddenly all for getting married, so the riddles only served as a delaying tactic, because it obviously didn’t work as a deterrent.
T: Yeah, I agree. They even say that there have been 13 executions this year alone, including the one the show starts off with. Wouldn’t the other countries’ royal families be hesitant to send their sons if they’re basically guaranteed to be executed?
F: Good way of getting rid of the duds, I guess, but that’s just bad parenting.
T: But then there’s Calàf. You know, it’s funny, but I kept thinking that he reminds me of someone.
T: Nandor from What We Do in the Shadows.
F: Haha! Yeah, I can see that. Nandor also got carried away when finding someone of interest, so that tracks.
T: It’s the hair and the costume too. Half expecting him to turn around and say “Not now, Guillermo!” at someone, but there you go. Back to the opera.
F: I have written down that there’s a moon projected onto the tower, then the face of Turandot.
T: Yeah, and even though Calàf has just been reunited with his exiled father and Liù, he doesn’t care. He’s more like “Oh wow, Turandot is amazing!” while poor Liù, who has admitted to him that he once smiled at her and now she loves him forever – which, okay, that’s a whole other kettle of fish – stands there like “I’m right fucking here, dude”.
F: Not a prince of tactfulness, that’s for damn sure. Let’s talk a little bit about Liù.
T: My notes say “He smiled at me once, we’re practically engaged!”
F: Yeah. That ain’t the healthiest of relationships.
T: I really liked Hyeseoung Kwon in the role. She was great.
F: Agreed! Did Liù join Timur on his exile, walking across untold distances, because she hoped that one day they might happen upon his son somewhere? I gotta give her credit for positive thinking, however delusional it may have seemed.
T: Cue New Agey type self help books about the Law of Attraction. Ask and you shall receive!
F: Even if it means beating more or less astronomical odds of randomly running into not only another exiled person from the same country, but Calàf in particular?
T: Sure, just manifest it, you know? Mood board that shit. Magic!
F: Serendipity was a much bigger thing in those days than it is now, because belief in providence was widespread. These days? If God’s out there, He has a lot to answer for.
T: These days we’re a bit more cynical in general, I think. Less magical thinking and seeing happy little meaningful coincidences everywhere.
F: R.I.P. Bob Ross.
T: We just see things as actual coincidences, not that someone else had a hand in bringing them about.
F: For better or for worse. What did you make of the Three Stooges?
T: “Ping”, “Pang”, and “Pong”? Isn’t that a bit racist?
F: It was a different time back then. You could get away with things like that.
T: Some people got away with it in more recent times as well, so it’s not exactly dead and buried, sadly. Those guys had big hats! And big clothing … that they seem to take off only to put back on again?
F: They were preparing themselves for the wedding, which they hope will finally happen this time, but they’re also managing their expectations, given all the previous failures followed by executions.
T: Brings a bit of colour into it, though. The costumes are beautiful. Everyone’s costumes are, for that matter. Props to the costume designer!
F: It’s a beautiful production in general, don’t you think?
T: The spikey tower isn’t exactly visually pleasing, but it’s definitely striking. The whole thing does feel very Chinese. Says me, the ignorant foreigner.
F: There’s this excerpt I found online somewhere, which might explain it:
[Director Chen] Shi-Zheng’s work forms a bridge between Chinese and Western artistic approaches, drawing on the Hollywood film tradition, theatrical acrobatics and traditional Chinese opera to create works that thrill visually and cut to the heart.
T: That makes so much sense. You’d hope there would be some genuine Chinese touches in the show if the director is Chinese, wouldn’t you?
F: Yes, but Puccini also did his homework. He wanted a modicum of authenticity. Some of the melodies seem to be based on traditional Chinese music, for example. Whether or not he succeeded in his mission is for the Chinese to decide.
T: I did think some of the melodies sounded Chinese, but much like you I don’t know for sure either. I noticed some melodies tended to recur as well.
F: There’s that Hollywood film tradition sneaking in.
T: It did feel a bit like the soundtrack from an old school Hollywood film at times.
F: Would you say that’s a bad thing?
T: No, but I found it interesting. It kind of bridges the gap between old and new. The old world of opera, and the new world of films and film scores.
F: Turandot premiered in 1926, a year before the first full length “talkie.”
T: The Golden Age of Hollywood was still ahead, but it was on the cusp. I wonder what future Puccini operas would have been like had he lived a few more years.
F: It saddens me that we’ll never know.
T: Same. Another thing that reminds me of films is that the very beginning uses what really sounds a lot like the classic “dun-dun-DUUUUN!” Could that have originated here, do you think?
F: I would like to say yes and let Puccini take the credit, but truth is it predates Turandot by more than a decade. I looked it up.
T: People have actually researched it?
F: Several, actually. Those three notes were already a cliché when radio came along.
T: Well, the more you know! What do you think of being able to see the Sydney Opera House in the background in some of the shots?
F: On the one hand it would be like seeing the Statue of Liberty in the background of an open air show in New York. It’s both cheesy and charming at the same time. It appeals to tourism by showing off an internationally renowned landmark, but it’s also a display of local pride. “This is our city.”
T: Plus it’s a production by the Opera Australia company, who I believe normally resides at the Sydney Opera House, so it’s a nice callback to that as well.
F: There’s that too, yeah. Good point.
T: Can we talk about Nessun dorma now?
F: The most famous aria from Turandot, and one of the most famous operatic arias of all time? Yeah, it’s about time we got around to it.
T: The song that most people probably know as Vincero, because those are the final words. And it became a big success outside of operatic circles when Pavarotti sang it at the football World Cup in the 1990s.
F: Did you know what it was about before seeing Turandot and having the benefit of subtitles?
T: Nope, in much the same way as La donna è mobile, except you don’t get the “you what, mate?” from it, because the lyrics are very different.
F: Very different character singing it. A lovestruck prince instead of a womanizing duke.
T: It’s such a good response to Turandot’s decree as well. “No one shall sleep, and at dawn, I will be victorious.”
F: The swell of the music around it …
T: Goosebumps. Sung with such emotion. I love Nessun dorma. The only strange thing is hearing it associated with football. It’s nothing to do with kicking a ball around a field.
F: It’s triumphant and ends with “I will be victorious”, and if you don’t know Italian that’s the bit you’ll remember. It’s about the feeling it gives you, not the words themselves.
T: I think you’re right. Hearing it now, and knowing the context of it, and what it’s actually about, I think it’s much more touching, more effective, and so much more than a sportsball anthem.
F: And then there are fireworks, like it’s the Superbowl.
T: Wrong kind of football, but yes? They’re on an outside stage, in the harbour, there are fireworks. So far it’s two for two on that.
F: I enjoy a good fireworks display. Not everyone does, I’m well aware, but when you know they’re coming, at least you can prepare.
T: Hide at the back of a wardrobe?
F: Someone I know gets a few people together in a basement where they play loud music and play cards and drink until they pass out every Fourth of July. Or so I’m told.
T: You’re not invited?
F: It ain’t meant for me. I’m on a rooftop somewhere getting a full view of it all. Different strokes for different folks.
T: Yeah, I get that. Sadly sitting in a basement getting drunk is not an option for animals. Indoor pets have some options, but wild animals outdoors don’t. My mum-in-law’s old dog was miserable every Bonfire Night and New Year’s Eve – not to mention all the other times people decide to let them off because it’s someone’s birthday, a wedding, or it’s Tuesday or whatever. If it could be contained to specific days a year, everyone would be much happier. Animals, people who have fled from or served in wars … Or just people who don’t like sudden, very loud noises …
F: My nephew’s first fireworks display? Poor kid was terrified! He got better as he grew older, but as a baby? I felt so sorry for him.
T: I can imagine. Feels like I might have done something similar, but I can’t remember that far back. It’s not beyond possibility, at any rate, because I used to be terrified of the hoover when I was a few years old.
F: Because of the noise?
T: I think so, I still don’t like loud noises, to be fair. But maybe a part of it was that the hoover could make things disappear when it got close. … Let’s just say I had issues.
F: How did you overcome it? I presume you did.
T: My husband might beg to differ! Joking aside, they gave the hoover a name. Somehow that made it less scary. Maybe they also explained the concept of hoover bags and how you could open them if need be, and that it’s impossible for a person to get sucked up into it and disappear. But it’s only the naming I can say for sure happened. Like, “it’s only Jenkins, he’s helping us clean the living room”. And then it wasn’t scary anymore.
F: I need to remember that for when I have kids. You never know, it might come in handy.
T: Aww, that’s sweet. Like and subscribe for more tips on dealing with a Child With Issues™! Support us on Patreon to unlock a complimentary therapy session with Dr Francis!
F: We have a Patreon?
T: We do not, no. Nor do we really have much of a YouTube channel either, but it’s what people always say at the end of things, and we’re nearing the end now, I think?
F: Almost. We still have the Miracle of Love’s First Kiss.
T: True, because that seems to be the only real reason Turandot decides not to kill Calàf, doesn’t it? They kiss, suddenly she loves him, it’s Happily Ever After.
F: I think there’s more to it than that.
T: How so?
F: Think about it. He answers the three riddles correctly. Instead of dragging her straight down the aisle, which you could argue a winning prince might feel entitled to do, he gives her a riddle. He has won, but he respects that she is apprehensive—
F: —of having to marry him. Sure, she only has until dawn, but at the end he tells her his name and she can do whatever she wants with this information, and in turn with him. He’s laying his life in her hands, capitulating to her, showing her that he has no intention of putting her through what happened to her ancestor centuries ago.
T: Figuratively laying down on his back and exposing his neck, so to speak.
F: Exactly like that.
T: Plus there’s Liù. Sweet Liù. She would rather take her own life than betray him by uttering his name, because she loves him. She’s in some sort of finger prison, being tortured, and she holds firm. He tries to stop her from killing herself, rather than running her down with a sword to stop her from speaking his name, which he could have easily done if he thought she was going to say it.
F: If he was that desperate for Turandot.
T: Let’s face it, when Turandot had just sung a song that amounted to “Fuck all men!” – not in the “let’s have an orgy” sense of the word – Calàf’s response was essentially “I’m so turned on right now”, so yeah, I’d say he was kind of desperate. Even at the beginning, when everyone told him “FFS, don’t!” he still went ahead and asked to be the next person to try solving the riddles.
F: Determination can be a good thing.
T: He seemed determined to get himself executed. He was only lucky he was good at riddles.
F: Riddles have never been my strong point, I got to admit. You any good at riddles?
T: Let’s just say I would have had daily struggles getting into the Ravenclaw common room, and would have needed someone to bail me out constantly.
F: Except Hogwarts isn’t real.
T: No. Although, speaking about racially stereotypical naming conventions … Those books have more than a few.
F: Not the only modern books to do so either, would be my guess.
T: Probably not. Racism is a longstanding European tradition, after all. We’re off topic again, aren’t we?
F: We are, so let’s wrap up. Did you enjoy Turandot?
T: Yes, although I maintain that I think the only reason it has a happy ending is because Puccini died before he finished it.
F: Hey, you ain’t even seen them all yet!
T: But it’s mostly true, isn’t it?
F: Well … Okay, yes. It is.
T: And a woman does die in it, even if she’s not the main character. But the staging was great, the singers and dancers were excellent, and I’m interested in seeing if any other production can live up to this.
F: Some of them do, for sure. It’s a good summary.
T: Did you enjoy it?
F: I always do. It’s Puccini. Not like I’m going to give it a thumbs down.
T: No, I guess not. What should we discuss next time?
F: Only time will tell. Until then, a presto!