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

WHAT'RE YOU DOING??

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...

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