Sexual obsession underscores the story and music of Turandot

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The conventional wisdom about "Turandot," Puccini's last operatic extravaganza about sex and sadism in excelsus, is that the great composer couldn't finish the opera because of his death from throat cancer in 1924. The falling off in quality in "Turandot's" final 15 minutes is usually blamed on the failure of Franco Alfano, the composer hired to complete the work from Puccini's sketches, to meet the Puccinian standard.

But one suspects that the real reason for the opera's sputtering in its final moments is that "Turandot" itself had come to a dead end months before the composer's death: Puccini himself was unable to imagine what manner of love could exist between his fiery hero and the icy princess who gives the opera its name. Whether or not Puccini intended it (and one believes he didn't), "Turandot" is a musico-theatrical study of obsessive love, which, by its nature, is incapable of a successful resolution.

"Turandot," which the Baltimore Opera Company will present for a run of four performances beginning Saturday, is a grisly, flesh-and-blood fairy tale about a Chinese princess who beheads her suitors after they fail to solve the three enigmas she proposes. Her murderous chastity comes to an end when an unknown prince solves the riddles and finally -- after abandoning his father and passively watching while the slave girl who loves him is tortured -- conquers her with a violent kiss.

Operas tend to be songs of love and death and many operatic composers are interested in women in distress because the high female voice registers extremes of human emotion that no instrument can match. But Puccini's imagination was particularly stimulated by the plight of acutely suffering women; one need only think of Mimi (in "La Boheme"), of Tosca and Butterfly.

In "Turandot," however, the composer set out to do something more ambitious. The type of the long-suffering woman is there in the slave girl, Liu but this heroine is no victim: Turandot is a woman who makes men suffer.But perhaps the most interesting departure is -- despite the title -- that it's not the heroine who is the focus, but the hero, Calaf. Puccini and his librettists put Calaf at the apex of a triangle between Turandot and Liu. Since he is both object (the subject of Liu's love) and subject (to his passion for Turandot), he possesses a prominence achieved by no other hero in the Puccini canon.

Much earlier in his career -- in his first great opera, "Manon Lescaut" -- Puccini had depicted the suffering a man might endure because of his love for a woman. But in "Turandot" he seems to go further. One says "seems" because, while "Turandot" is a great work (except for Alfano's finale), it is a limited one. And it is limited because the human inadequacies built into the opera made it impossible for the composer to finish a work that he believed -- quite falsely -- to be about love. For its real subject is obsessive desire, a longing that is an addiction to erotic fantasy.

The prince displays all the signs of such addiction. It is not simply that Calaf falls desperately in love with Turandot at first sight, but that he is willing to sacrifice not merely his life, but also that of his father and Liu, and, if necessary, all the inhabitants of Peking. In the third act, when the chorus pleads with him to leave the city so that the princess will not turn it into a charnel house in order to avoid marriage, he replies (accompanied by Puccini's grandest music), "Useless entreaties! Vain threats! Though the skies fall, I will have Turandot!"

And what of the woman for whom he sacrifices so much (and for whom he is willing to sacrifice much more)? Put simply, she is a version of what the poet John Keats, a century earlier, called "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." She is beautiful and without apparent human feeling, and -- above all -- she is unattainable. Her unattainability has very little to do with her chastity and a great deal to do with her emotional inaccessibility. Bizet's Carmen, who makes herself sexually available to any man she chooses, is another version of the Belle Dame. What drives men crazy for Carmen is that, while she gives them her body, she does not give them her self. When Turandot, over music that heats the blood, sings "No man shall possess me," she is talking about more than sex. She is the opposite of characters such as Butterfly or Liu, who are willing to sacrifice all for love.

Male fantasy

One could say that "Turandot" contains the material for a feminist interpretation; but the character grows out of a fantasy that afflicts almost all heterosexual men from time to time (and cripples more of them than most would care to admit): The fantasy of sex so extraordinary that it solves all problems. It is all but impossible to resist the feeling that this is what Calaf means when he sings of the "glory" that will be his when he possesses Turandot. And it's even more impossible to refrain from coming to that conclusion during "Nessun dorma," Calaf's third act aria as he waits for the dawn that he hopes will bring the consummation of his love.

As Calaf sings, the tenor voice rides up and down the treble staff, its sinuously symbolic motion declaring the erotic fantasy that spurs the voice to ever greater lyric heights. The aria reaches its musical (and sexual) climax when the tenor hits a sustained (and almost inhumanly high) B at the end of "At dawn I shall conquer," soaring above the full orchestra blazing away with Puccinian ardor.

Now nothing is wrong with such male fantasies -- which we continue to enjoy in films, such as "Basic Instinct," with a sure finger on the popular pulse -- as long as they do not try to be what they are not. Puccini's problem with "Turandot" was that he thought he was musically dramatizing the triumph of love when what he was celebrating was a triumph of an entirely different kind.

There were, to be sure, psychobiographical factors at work. Puccini was himself an inveterate womanizer, continually falling in and out of love. The nature of that sort of love from a male point of view is that -- whether the woman is of the Carmen or the Turandot variety -- it cannot have a happy conclusion. In "Carmen," Bizet had the musical honesty to pursue the story to its tragic end. But from the inception of "Turandot" in 1920, Puccini was determined to give his opera a triumphantly happy resolution. Clever dramatist that he was, he knew that he had created a rather intractable object in his lead female character, and he realized that he would have to work hard to make Turandot finally return his hero's love.

When he received his librettists' first treatment of the story, he wrote back about the way they ended the piece: "I had thought her yielding would be more gripping, and I would have wanted her to erupt in expressions of love before the people -- excessively, violently, shamelessly, like a bomb exploding." This is a description of sex, but it doesn't have much to do with love.

No opera had ever taken Puccini more than 2 1/2 years to complete and, while he had been able to finish most of Turandot in that time, he continued to struggle with the end, continually hectoring his librettists to give him a final scene that would permit him to create music that could convince his audience of Turandot's capitulation, her melting into what Puccini considered human love.

The problem was that what Puccini knew of love is what we hear in Calaf's apostrophes to Turandot -- the idealized lust we know as obsessive love. That the composer believed that sex defines the nature of love is only too clear in another letter to his librettists: "I do think that Calaf must kiss Turandot and reveal his great love to the icy princess. After he has kissed her, with a kiss zTC that lasts several seconds, he must say: 'Now nothing matters to me, I will even die.' "

But the nature of such love (in a reasonably mature man) is impermanence; in a less mature one, it is obsession. After the prince has solved the three riddles, the princess declares "Would you hold me in your arms by force, reluctant, quivering?" The music, almost pornographic in its erotic longing, declares that the answer is yes, even if Calaf insists that he only wants her if she, too, is "aflame with love."

An unsatisfying ending

After two hours in which one has heard brilliant music, coupled to an almost equally fine text, that has dramatized a burning desire for an unattainable consummation, it is easy to understand that Puccini simply could not supply a satisfying ending. And Alfano, an estimable musician, could not succeed at what the superior composer had failed to do. The grandest of all Puccini's operas collapses with a thud as unconvincing as the orchestral bang that Alfano summons to represent that transfiguring kiss.

At the opera's premiere two years after Puccini's death, Arturo Toscanini, who conducted it, declined to perform Alfano's finale, turning to the audience before walking off the podium and saying: "Here the opera ends because at this point the maestro died."

But Puccini had failed with "Turandot" long before he died. In his last opera (as well, perhaps, in his life), the composer had been unable to realize that while sex is an important

rung on the ladder of love, it is only the first step of a long and arduous journey.

'Turandot'

When: Oct. 17 at 8:15 p.m., Oct. 21

at 8:15 p.m., Oct. 23 at 8:15 p.m.

and Oct. 25 at 3 p.m.

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

Tickets: From $18.

% Call: (410) 685-0692.

'Turandot' discography

"Turandot" has a distinguished discography. A recording that most operatic fanciers treasure is the one that Maria Callas made in 1957 (EMI) with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf as Liu and the great Tullio Serafin conducting. The Calaf (Eugenio Fernandi) is relatively undistinguished, but Callas is so extraordinary at bringing the character to life that one visualizes her flashing eyes.

No listener should be without one of the two recordings made by Birgit Nilsson, who had the voice most perfectly suited to this role's impossible demands on timbre and volume. I slightly prefer the earlier one on RCA to the fine one on EMI. Despite the RCA's ordinary recorded sound and so-so conducting by Erich Leinsdorf, it shines because of Jussi Bjorling's affectingly sensitive and deservedly legendary performance as Calaf and because of Renata Tebaldi's gorgeous voice as Liu. I would avoid the Deutsche Grammophon set conducted by Herbert von Karajan. The conducting is magnificent and the contributions by Placido Domingo (Calaf) and Barbara Hendricks (Liu) are wonderful, but Katia Ricciarelli is completely overmatched by Turandot's vocal demands.

If you can afford only one, perhaps the best bet is the London set featuring Joan Sutherland (Turandot), Luciano Pavarotti (Calaf) and Montserrat Caballe (Liu). These discs feature the best conducting ever committed to records by Zubin Mehta and all the principals -- including Sutherland, who never sang the part in the opera house -- are in glorious voice.

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