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 Vincer├▓'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.

2 comments:

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