At the pre-show lecture in advance of Monday’s performance of Turandot at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, WFMT’s Carl Grapentine observed that, in the end, Puccini’s final opera—about a cold, unloving princess and the stranger determined to win her love—is a fairy tale, after all. Behind all the pomp and production, it’s a love story where all’s well that ends well.
But the opera that Puccini never actually finished (the final portion was completed by Franco Alfano after Puccini died of throat cancer in 1924) is more than your average boy-meets-princess, will-they-won’t-they fairy tale, and several pieces of the production and story make it easy to forget that, at least until the very last moments, the fairy tale at the heart of it all will prevail.
For one, there’s the striking, impressive staging of a mystical, practically gothic China where the story is set, and the powerhouse performances of sopranos Amber Wagner (Turandot), tenor Stefano La Colla (Calaf) and, in performances through December, Maria Agresta (Liu), all flanked by an ensemble and chorus with a presence that fills the historic theater on Wacker Drive to the rafters and beyond.
Turandot (pronounced by the folks at the Lyric as Tuhr-ran-doht, with a t at the end) proves a strong way to go out if you’re Giacamo Puccini, who’s perhaps best known for productions like La Bohème (aka Jonathan Larson’s inspiration for Rent) and Madama Butterfly (the inspiration for M. Butterfly). Here, he adapts the work of a 12th-century poet to tell the story of Princess Turandot, sworn off any coupling unless the potential suitor can answer the three riddles she poses; if not, he’s put to death. When one foreign prince manages to answer her three questions perfectly, the fierce princess nevertheless rebuffs his proposal, refusing to marry him.
It’s at this point that the plot gets slightly convoluted, with lots of double negatives. Our successful prince, enlightened as he is, has no interest in forcing Turandot’s hand in marriage. Instead, he’s convinced he can get her to fall in love with him. So he decides to give her an out, offering a challenge of his own: if she can discover his name before sunrise, then he’ll accept his fate as if he’d failed the riddles and surrender to the executioner’s axe after all. As it turns out, only two people in the village know his secret—his father, and he’s not talking; and his father’s slave girl, Liu, who happens to be in love with the prince herself.
Presented in three acts (in this Lyric production, there is only a pause after the first act; the performance’s only intermission comes between acts II and III), this thin plot is stretched to the max to fill the nearly three hours running time. Puccini lingers on moments that modern theater (or perhaps just non-opera versions) would’ve established and moved on from in a verse. Turnadot, the star of our show, doesn’t even utter a word until the second act; the first act never gets beyond Calaf debating about, and then determining to, put his name in for the challenge of the riddles. (By banging a gong no less. Very on brand.) Liu and his father try to talk him out of it. Three clever ministers—Ping, Pang and Pong—who’ve seen the carnage of other less worthy suitors try to dissuade Calaf from this fool’s errand, but even they can’t stop a lover’s destiny once that train has left the station.
The final act ratchets up the already high drama as Turnadot declares that no one shall sleep until she learns the name of her suitor and is freed from her engagement. As dawn nears, Liu, beside herself with grief as she watches the man she loves pursue someone else, kills herself rather than reveal her prince’s real name. Despite her grand gesture, Calaf, charmer that he is, insists that he can melt the ice-cold heart inside Turandot and, like all good fairy tales, live happily ever after. Sure enough, with a stolen kiss and a declaration of love, the sun rises, and with it a new dawn of peace and tranquility, Turandot now a woman transformed by love.
In a production consistently at an eleven, a few moments do stand out for their poignant emotion and exceptional delivery. In Act I, Liù pleads with Calaf not to take on the challenge of the riddles; she’s equally devastated with the realization that he’ll never choose her and confronting the likely reality that he’s facing certain death. Agresta’s delivery makes all of that devastation and pain palpable; her solo garnered the first applause of the production. Equally moving is the opening of Act II, as Ping, Pang and Pong reminisce about more peaceful times and their quieter lives back home; the trio typically reserved for a bit of comic relief reveal that even they don’t relish the brutality of Turandot’s reign. The depth and sharpness of their observations leave one longing, just as they are, for this much more attractive reality.
When it premiered nearly a century ago, Turnadot was likely a spectacle to behold. Exotic and lavish, it presents a world of “the Orient” that many in Turin and then New York had likely never seen. The ornate costumes and opulent staging would’ve surely been awe-inspiring (much, admittedly, as they are today). What’s more, Turandot herself is, in some ways, quite progressive. She’s determined not to be “claimed” by any interloper who swaggers into town on a quest to conquer her. She’d rather be alone forever; “No man shall make me his!” she proclaims.
But in almost-2018, the current climate what it is with regard to cultural appropriation and gender politics, one can’t help but wonder if the show stands up to modern scrutiny. Do not misunderstand this observation; Puccini’s exceptional music and the soaring vocals that deliver it both remain a gift to global culture and musical theater in general. The Lyric’s production, a stage washed in bold colors that transport us from day to night and back again, is a wonder to behold. Nevertheless, one would be forgiven for feeling a bit squeamish from their seat about Chinese ministers named Ping, Pang and Pong, for crying out loud.
Zooming in too closely on the details of this nearly 100-year-old production may prove problematic today, but the production remains a striking gem in another stellar season presented by the Lyric. Seemingly no expense is spared, and top talent graces the stage and fills the orchestra pit. Better to stay at arm’s length to appreciate the fairy tale for the fantastical, even slightly dystopian, world it creates. At that distance, there’s no awkwardness around the productions clichéd version of ancient China or Turandot’s otherwise inexplicable about-face into the arms of love the moment Calaf literally forces a kiss on her. If it’s possible to set aside the uncomfortable bits (and is it, really?), what’s left is a stunning production of a career-capping opera that makes for an exceptional night at the theater.
Turandot is now playing at Lyric Opera of Chicago and runs through January 27. Visit Lyric Opera for performance dates and ticket information.