March 27, 2017

What the melodies in Turandot tell us

Ah, "Nessun dorma" - the tenor showpiece in Act 3 of Turandot that, all by itself, might account for the spike in ticket sales Virginia Opera is enjoying here at season's end. What would Puccini have to say if he could know the extent to which it has invaded popular culture? Would he be gratified? Amused? Resigned? Repelled?

Erhu and bow
I used to be a fan of the "medical mystery" series "House M.D.". I recall an episode in which Dr. Gregory House sat listening to some tenor of... "limited vocal resources" (I guess they couldn't get the rights to a Pavarotti performance") blast his way through the concluding Vincerò's with rapt expression. I never quite bought that scene, as Puccini did not strike me as suiting House's tastes in music, as widely varied as they were.

Lately, though, I stumbled across a website offering detailed commentary on "House", including a highly detailed examination of the metaphorical ways in which "Nessun dorma" shed light on the episode's themes. You can read it at this link. I think Puccini would DEFINITELY have gotten a charge out of this!

But, metaphors aside, your average opera-goer is probably content just to wallow in what I must confess is an instantly memorable melodic line, impressive in its grandiosity and sweep. There is a satisfying predictability in its inevitable ascent to the climax. You don't have to be a conservatory graduate to grasp this music.

But there is an aspect to the aria that repays a more analytical approach, as well as possibly helping to explain its universal popularity. It's just this: it stands out in stark contrast to everything the other characters sing throughout the opera.

Puccini did his due diligence in tackling a story set in China. He collected a set of authentic Chinese folk melodies suitable for operatic adaptation, all in the name of exoticism and Orientalism. Looking for that kind of ambience, he studied books and borrowed a friend's music box obtained in China.

For instance, the theme used as Turandot's motif is an 18th-century tune called Mo Li Hua, or "Jasmine".Here's how it sounds played on the erhu, a native instrument..Puccini quotes it verbatim in Act 1, sung by a children's choir. The words have been changed, but not the tune.

There are eight authentic folk tunes in all, including a dancing theme with repeated notes sung by the three ministers; the anthem sung by the populace to Emperor Altoum, and Liu's plaintive aria "Signore ascolta", sung here by Renata Tebaldi.

The ministers, Liu, Turandot - all either sing or are associated with Chinese melodies. And all these melodies share the trait that distinguishes virtually all folk tunes: they are pentatonic. In other words, the complete tune may be played using a scale of just five notes - the notes corresponding to the five black keys on the piano.

Now listen carefully to "Nessun dorma", even if you know it really well. Listen analytically to the contour of the vocal line. The interesting aspect? It's not pentatonic, and it's not a Chinese tune. It's in D major, if you want to know (even though the key signature has one sharp). It's about as "exotic" and "Oriental" as Rogers and Hammerstein.

So what? The Unknown Prince is from Oklahoma? Okay, maybe not Rogers and Hammerstein. Calaf (as we discover his name to be in the last 5 minutes of the show) is not Western. But he IS an outsider. He's new to Peking - no one knows his name other than his dad and Liu. He's called a "straniero", or stranger; he doesn't belong.

He is "the other". And the smoothly western melodic style he employs not only in "Nessun dorma", but also in the earlier "Non piangere, Liu" brand him as such in his lack of Eastern characteristics.

Thus, good old "Nessun dorma" is more than a cross-over pop hit - it's a legitimate example of operatic craftsmanship, functioning as opera music should, by giving us information about the character to whom it's assigned. And as for the effect of its highly Western melodic contour in the context of continual Orientalism - perhaps this is why it strikes listeners as "popular" in nature. Perhaps this, more than its intrinsic musical merit, is why the aria has become an icon in modern culture.

March 20, 2017

Turandot: how that final duet might have been fixed

.Everyone knows why Giacomo Puccini did not complete the composition of Turandot.
Puccini in old age

He died. Complications from throat cancer - a heart attack three days following surgery to remove a tumor.

But if you read Puccini's letters to his collaborators, you begin to realize that while dying was a "contributing factor" (granted, a really really big one), it was not the only explanation for his failure to finish the thing.

The truth is that Puccini struggled with the final confrontational duet between the Unknown Prince and the Ice Princess. This was a struggle that went on for months, as a few excerpts from the letters will illustrate.

I am afraid that Turandot will never be finished. (November 1920)

I am in despair as black as night. ...One thing is certain: we must inspire the ... thing with life. As it stands now, it is absolutely impossible, all wrong. ...I know that the subject is not easily convincing... (September 1921)

Turandot gives me no peace. ...I think that perhaps we are on the wrong track... ...the duet in its present form doesn't seem to me to be what is wanted. ...My life is a torture because I fail to see in this opera all the throbbing life and power which are neessary in a work for the theater if it is to endure and hold. (November, 1921)

I am in black despair about Turandot. (November 1921)

I feel that this act as it is does not convince me and cannot convince the listener. (November 1921)

ALL the above quotes (and there are more, but you get the gist) were written two years before he even began to suffer the symptoms of the cancer, and three years before his death.

So what did he find unconvincing? Whence the epic writer's block? Whence all the despair?

To answer, I'll summarize what I, Your Humble Blogger, see as the problems with the opera's final 15 minutes; that duet Puccini hoped would be like "a shining meteor". There are three issues, to wit:

Unable to stomach an opera lacking a sympathetic female character, Puccini added the slave girl Liù. Now he had a worthy successor to Mimi, Cio-Cio-san and Suor Angelica: ultra-feminine, delicate, sweet, nurturing, living for love, and (of course) doomed - in short, an Italian man's fantasy of the Ideal Woman. From the moment at the top of Act I when Liù signals her hopeless devotion to the Prince by wafting a delicately shimmering high note as she recalls the time the Prince smiled at her, Puccini's audience has her pegged. Every one of us melts into a gooey grease spot; she has seduced us. We don't just like her, we LOVE her, and from that moment until her death, she's the one we identify with.

Then, with the opera nearly over, she sacrifices herself and she's GONE.

And before we have a chance to remove the lump in our throats and wipe the tears from our eyes, a harsh reality settles in: the one we loved is gone and we're left with the strident, homicidal, unlikeable harpy.

And we're supposed to transfer all our affection to the harpy, and exult in her happy ending. This is the aspect that Puccini knew was "unconvincing".

As pointed out in an earlier post, Puccini was attempting to make a late-career shift from intimate, realistic, "truthful" (verismo) operas to a full-out fairy tale: exotic fantasy with a happy ending. The biggest contrast is that while verismo characters are complex and three-dimensional, fairy-tale characters are flat -- one-dimensional. Witches are mean, princes are brave, princesses are beautiful. Or in this case, beautiful and violent. But old habits die hard, and the insertion of Liù, the fairy-tale shallowness was compromised; Puccini could not resist engaging our emotions as in the past.

As it happens, another nearly contemporary opera about Turandot appeared in 1917, by the composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni, took a far different approach. This Turandot is a comic piece filled with quirky irony. I don't know if Busoni's work drew Puccini's attention, but he went in the opposite direction: due north towards the humanity in all his operas.

So the idea of a "magical kiss" that instantly turns a domineering vengeful monster into a quivering, weeping, vulnerable woman now open to love...  is a Sleeping Beauty moment in an opera that has just depicted an all-too-tragic and believable scene of suicide. Now we've added another unconvincing element.

In last week's post I floated the theory that the Prince is driven more by THANATOS (the human instinct inspiring hatred, aggression and death) than EROS (the instinct to seek love and life). He never says "I love you" to Turandot; instead (at the end of the aria "Nessun dorma") he says "I will win, I will win!"

This attitude turns what one might expect to be a conventional "love duet" into something more resembling T-Rex versus King Kong - a contest of strength between two dominant beings. This adds a disturbing note when it comes to that final scene. Here's a transcript of the Prince's "seduction":

Your spirit is on high! But your body is near. With burning hands I’ll clasp the gold border of your starry cloak... My trembling mouth will be pressed on yours... 

Do not profane me! 

Ah! To feel you alive! 

Stand back! Do not profane me! 

I want you to be mine! 

TURANDOT Touch me not, it is a sacrilege! 

No, your kiss gives me eternity! 


And then, as the tympani pound repeatedly, he plants a lengthy kiss on her. See the problem? If you don't, you haven't watched NEARLY enough episodes of "Law and Order: SVU", because guess what? It's 2017, and "NO MEANS NO". Pay special attention to that line above: "Your iciness is a lie". Oh brother - that's the same lame excuse every randy high-school boy gives when he's forced his date in the back seat of his car: "She may have said 'no', but I could tell she really wanted it."

It's lucky for the Prince he lives in fabled times, because these days he could be arrested for assault. Even cutting him all possible slack on the theory that "hey, it's just a fairy tale", no one who finds the dialogue above creepy and inappropriate can be blamed.

Three problems, at least two of which were driving Puccini into frustrated depression. (I doubt that the Prince's sexual aggression bothered him, given the patriarchal culture in which he lived.)

AND NOW: MY SOLUTION. Yes, yes, no one asked me, but it's fun to apply oneself to FIXING A MASTERPIECE.

 In her post-kiss daze, Turandot sings her final aria "Del primo pianto" in which she explores her new state of mind. Pay special attention to this portion of the text:

How many I’ve seen die for me! 
And I scorned them; but you, I feared!
In your eyes there was the light of heroes! 
In your eyes there was haughty certainty... 
And for that I hated you... And I loved you for that, 

This is really important - it finally explains why Turandot could respond to this Prince and not the ones she killed. Calaf has caused a flare-up in the battle of opposite instincts. "For that I hated you" - Thanatos! "For that I loved you" - Eros! As I pointed out in my previous post, this single line indicates that each character sees a reflection of themselves in the other. The trouble is, this crucial revelation comes literally in the last ten minutes of the opera. It feels tacked on, like the tail in a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Perhaps, had Puccini lived, it might have occurred to him to introduce Turandot's duality of Eros and Thanatos earlier in the opera instead of the "tail" end (pardon the pun.) He might have realized that Ping Pang and Pong get an inordinate of time onstage for supporting characters.

With that in mind, he could have decided to trim some of their material in Act 2 or Act 3 to make room for a short scene of Turandot in her bed chamber. Her chamber-maid is brushing the princess's hair as Turandot confides her mixed feelings about the stranger who dares to challenge her. She describes her mixture of attraction and revulsion. Then, when she delivers the aria in the finale, it might NOT seem tacked on; it might explain everything.

Oh, and as long as we're re-writing the libretto, let's give our politically incorrect Prince a different strategy in the duet. He could, you know, charm her. He could shock her by admitting his name and saying "You have every right to have me killed now that you know my name, but I don't think you will. I think you know that our destinies are linked forever. I think you want to fall in love at last." Or some such operatic nonsense. Great music could make it work.

Oh, and he should also get over his aversion to the "L" word. C'mon, man, let's pop out a few declarations of "Io t'amo" - you can do this!

The point is, pity poor Franco Alfano. He did not have the luxury of "tweaking" the libretto; his job was to set it to music, as imperfect as he may have found it. And the ultimate point? If the final duet seems unsatisfactory to you, don't be judgemental! Puccini, had he lived, would have lived up to the ideals his perfectionist nature demanded. He knew the finale was not as effective as the rest of the opera. He would have continued his struggle to render a powerful conclusion. The finale would have been different. from the one we have today, to an extent we can, sadly, never know

March 13, 2017

Turandot: Freud weighs in on Calaf's death wish

If you're like me, there comes a moment in Puccini's Turandot when you want to stop the action and take Calaf (a.k.a. The Unknown Prince) aside and have a heart-to-heart with him; a moment when you want to grab him by the shoulders, look earnestly into his eyes and ask him:
Noted opera scholar Sigmund Freud


This moment comes in Act 2. Our hero has just defied certain death by succeeding where twenty-seven would-be suitors of Turandot failed: he has correctly answered the princess's three riddles, thereby avoiding execution and winning the right to wed her.

Everyone tried to talk him out of the ritual of the riddles, reminding him of the twenty-seven severed heads lining the streets of Pesking, but Calaf forged ahead, whether bravely or foolishly. And he beat the odds - a bigger surprise than the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series! A bigger upset than a 16-seed going to the Final Four and winning March Madness!

Then he throws it all away. When Turandot pitches a royal hissy-fit, Calaf makes a stunning proposition: if she can discover his name by dawn, he will go to his death.

Again, WHAT are you DOING? Calaf, Calaf, Calaf..... what is going on with you, brother? You think Turandot can't find out your name? Dude, she'll just Google you, or maybe ask Siri. They probably have facial recognition software in that palace. Seriously, though, even given that we're dealing with fairy-tale logic, we find ourselves wondering about Calaf's motivation for putting himself on the fast track to execution for the second time.

I believe Sigmund Freud has the answer. In his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud advanced the theory that human behavior is driven by two opposing instincts he believed were universal, innate and constant: Eros and Thanatos.

Most of us know Eros was the Greek version of the god of love called Cupid in Roman mythology. And we're familiar with the connotations of the term "erotic" in the sense of carnal desire. For Freud, though, Eros goes beyond man's sex drive to include all behaviors that promote the preservation of life and the preservation of the species. So under the umbrella of "Eros" we find the desire for food, drink, shelter, companionship, and peaceable, cooperative social interaction.

Thanatos, on the other hand, signifies (but is not limited to) what we commonly think of as a "death wish"; when your crazy brother-in-law insists on riding his motorcycle without a helmet, that's a manifestation of the Thanatos in his nature. Freud put it this way:

"The aim of all life is death... inanimate things existed before living ones."

Beyond seeking death, Thanatos drives all behaviors of aggression, hate, fear, and acts of violence such as murder.

Now we have a rationale for analyzing the twenty-seven dead princes, Calaf, and even..........

...........Turandot herself!

Consider: as Turandot makes her brief (and silent) appearance in Act I, Calaf glances at her, observers her "divine beauty" (divina bellezza) and is instantly besotted with her. As he announces his feelings to his father, his words are notable for expressing both Eros and Thanatos. Observe:
  • This is life, Father! (Eros)
  • I'm suffering, Father. (Thanatos)
  • I want to conquer her in her beauty! (Thanatos - "conquer" - aggression)
  • Only I love her! (Eros)
Moments later, he refers to himself as "one who smiles no more." Isn't love supposed to make a guy happy? "Wings on your heels" and all that? Not this Prince, evidently. The very act of recklessly ringing the gong, thus declaring his intention to win her hand, is pure Thanatos; the very definition of a death-wish. But that's nothing compared to the lunacy of cheating death and then placing himself in purely unnecessary jeopardy by daring the Princess to learn his name. 

As for "Nessun dorma", his big third-act aria so beloved as to turn up regularly at talent shows and beauty pageants, it's not really a love-song. The word "love" appears only once, and in a poetically abstract manner. Speculating that Turandot herself, like the people of Peking, will not sleep, he muses that the stars she's looking at "tremble with love and hope".

But he does NOT say that he loves her. Instead, famously, he says "Vincerò!"; (I will win!). That's aggression. That's Thanatos. This attitude begs the question: what is the basis of Calaf's interest in Turandot? It's an opera, so we assume he loves her. Does he? The sum of his knowledge about her is that A) She's very beautiful; and B) she is hostile to men and likes to kill them. I, for one, suspect that it's the latter point that motivates him more than her beauty. After all, immediately following "Nessun dorma", the three ministers try to bribe him with an entire harem of beautiful women, to no avail. It's the challenge of Turandot's domination of the male sex that "pushes his buttons", so to speak.

Now we need to wrap up this bit of <COUGH COUGH> amateur psychoanalysis by taking a look at the final duet between King Kong (Calaf) and his amorous "opponent", the T-Rex (Turandot). This is an opera, he's a tenor, she's a soprano, he kisses her, it all leads to a happy ending.

So that makes it a love duet, right?  Hmmmmm...... Maybe not so much.

Again, look at the libretto. Not once does Calaf say ANY of the multitude of ways tenors have said "I love you" to sopranos: t'amo; te adoro; and so on. As in his aria, Calaf mentions the word "amore" once, in this context: "It is dawn, and love is born with the sun." That's kind of generic; it's not a personal declaration of his love, which would be the Eros in his attitude.

Instead, we get highly aggressive, purely Thanatic declarations of his dominance overpowering hers:

  • "With burning hands I’ll clasp the gold border of your starry cloak...
    My trembling mouth will be pressed on yours." (But do you love her?)
  • "I want you to be mine!" (...because you love her dearly?)
  • "You are mine! You who tremble if I touch you!" (Because she knows you love her?)
Over her protestations, he siezes her and plants a hard kiss on her, the way Rhett did to Scarlett in Gone With The Wind. King Kong just grabbed T-Rex by the tail, swung it around over his head and sent it crashing into a cliff. 

So: why does Turandot respond by falling in love with him? Why does that hoary old trope of "the magical kiss of the prince" (see Sleeping Beauty and Snow White) work on her? Why should we find it convincing, given her animus for men, a trait lacking in Sleeping B and Snow W??

I believe it's because they are peas in a pod. It turns out that Turandot is the same hot mess of Eros and Thanatos as her new boyfriend. The Thanatos part? Yeah, we all get that part: she executed twenty-seven potential husbands. Check. But the Eros instinct surprises us when it emerges in her final post-kiss aria "Del primo pianto". Key moments in this passage reveal that Freud's two opposing instincts are at war in her nature as well.

"In your eyes there was
the light of heroes!
In your eyes there was
haughty certainty...
And for that I hated you...
And I loved you for that,

tormented and torn 
between two equal fears..."

And there it is: the reluctant acknowledgement of the co-existence of Eros and Thanatos, the former as repressed as the latter was overt. This is why they can have a happy ending: each one saw a mirror of the self in the other. Each was driven to attain conquest in spite of attraction. One might say that Calaf's ultimate dominance is dictated by the patriarchal world-view of fables and, coincidentally, Italian society in Puccini's lifetime.

Next week we'll examine why Puccini struggled to complete that final duet and why his failure to complete it is only partly attributable to his death. AND, Faithful Readers, I'll also explain why

  • No composer, much less Franco Alfano, could have rendered a completely successful reconstruction of Puccini's intended finale; and
  • how I, Glenn Winters, would have fixed the opera had anyone asked me...