"Ice that sets you on fire "
So begins the third of three riddles asked by Turandot, the beautiful and deadly Chinese princess, of any man foolish enough to seek her hand. Any man of royal blood may take up the challenge and try to solve her three puzzles. But any who fail will face the executioner's blade.
"If she sets you free
"She makes you a slave."
By the beginning of Giacomo Puccini's opera, "Turandot" -- which is being performed by the Teatro Lirico d'Europa at the Mechanic Theatre tomorrow -- some 25 suitors have been put to death by the implacable princess, and as the curtain goes up, the prince of Persia is about to become No. 26.
It makes for a horrifying spectacle. As the orchestra rumbles ominously, the crowd assembled outside the walls of the Violet City in ancient Peking makes its bloodlust plain, lustily calling for the executioner. "Quickly, quickly! Death! Death!" they sing, and they refuse to be sated until the princess herself appears to oversee the execution.
"If she accepts you as a slave
"She makes you a king."
Anyone stumbling into such a scene should be frightened and horrified. But Calaf, son of the deposed King Timur and crown prince of Tartary, is instead smitten by the comely Turandot. Over the protests of his father and the devoted slave girl Liu, and despite the dire warnings offered by the ministers Ping, Pang and Pong, Calaf takes up the challenge, risking his life to win the love of this brutal beauty.
It seems an inexplicable attraction, yet somehow, the audience can relate. Because in much the same way that Calaf seems blinded by beauty, we find ourselves too besotted by the sumptuous score to fret over the flimsiness of the characters' motivations.
We're hardly surprised when Calaf quickly comes up with an answer to the riddle. Clearly, the "ice that sets you on fire" is Turandot -- and much the same could be said for the opera itself.
However difficult it may be to warm up to its plot or characters, the music in "Turandot" is undeniably alluring. It includes one of Puccini's most beloved tenor arias, the sweetly beautiful "Nessun dorma"; an impassioned, bravura soprano aria, "In questa reggia"; and the haunting, recurrent chorale, "La sui monti del l'est" (which is based on the Chinese folk song "Moon-Lee-Wha").
"Turandot" was the last of Puccini's operas -- indeed, the composer died of throat cancer before finishing the final act -- and is in many ways the least typical of his work. Its harmonic language is far more adventuresome than the staid tonality of "Manon Lescaut" or "La Boheme," and its characters are more bizarre and less sympathetic than those in "Madama Butterfly" or "La Fanciulla del West."
One might even go so far as to suggest that the protagonists of "Turandot" seem barely human at all. Certainly that seems the case with Turandot herself, who glories in the power to have her slavering suitors beheaded, yet falls madly in love after but a single kiss from Calaf.
But the Tatar prince, too, seems an enigma, risking his life and even imperiling his ailing father in pursuit of the haughty princess. Even Liu, the virtuous, devoted slave girl, seems a tad too good to be true, preferring to stab herself to death than to reveal the secret that would keep Calaf (whom she loves) from marrying Turandot.
Granted, "Turandot" makes no pretense to realism. Derived from a 1762 play by Carlo Gozzi, "Turandot" was originally a "fiable chinese tragicomica" -- that is, a Chinese tragicomic fairy tale. Puccini and his librettists, Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, drastically shortened the play, eliminating the comic elements and simplifying the plot. Their reworking makes the story flow swiftly and dramatically but doesn't offer much character development.
Then again, these aren't characters so much as caricatures, embodying many of the stereotypes Europeans held about Asians. Turandot, after all, is a classic "dragon lady," a proud, ruthless beauty indifferent to the suffering of others, who uses her beauty to lure men to their deaths. Liu, by contrast, is the quintessential Asian helpmate, a woman so self-deprecatingly devoted to the man she loves that she would gladly suffer torture or die on his behalf. Even the crowd's bloodlust and blithe acceptance of Turandot's cruelty seems to reflect the myth of Asia as a place where life is cheap and death is greeted with a shrug.
Given the similar stereotyping found in "Madama Butterfly," it's tempting to see a certain bigotry in the way the characters of "Turandot" are drawn. And even if the early 1920s, when Puccini was writing the opera, were not the most enlightened of times, the composer's embrace of Mussolini (who made Puccini a senator) does not sit well.
In fairness, though, the dramatis personae of "Turandot" are clearly not meant to represent the Chinese people. Instead, they're meant as the physical embodiment of extreme emotions: vengeance, determination, devotion and love.
Clearly, what attracted Puccini to the story was its potential for musical storytelling -- for composing melodies of such emotional piquancy that we in the audience would accept the characters' actions without question. He succeeded for much of the opera, writing some of the most affecting music of his career.
But because he died before completing the final scene, in which Calaf melts the icy heart of Turandot (Franco Alfano completed the score, working from sketches left by Puccini), we will never know just how great an opera "Turandot" could have been.
What: Puccini's "Turandot" by the Teatro Lirico d'Europa
When: 8 p.m. tomorrow
Where: Mechanic Theatre Tickets: $35, $45, $55. ($65 seats sold out)