Friday, October 21, 2011

Those Nasty Princesses - Turandot and Salome

Early this month, I saw my second Turandot by Giacomo Puccini.  Unlike the first time I saw it in the same production by British artist David Hockney on the same San Francisco Opera stage years ago with the truncated ending by Franco Alfano, this time, San Francisco Opera opted for Alfano's complete ending - Puccini died before he could complete his score for Turandot.  The longer ending made the transition of Turandot from an icy monster to a succumbed lover a bit more convincing, without reducing the bombastically glorious outpouring of the melody based on the "hit number" Nessun Dorma.

Luciano Pavarotti sings "Nessun Dorma"

Even so, the story of Turandot as presented by Puccini and his librettist was still a very hard to stomach and accept.  The story was simple: Chinese Princess Turandot, traumatized by a female ancestor's ravishment in the hands of invading male conquer, vowed not to surrender.  She posed three riddles for suitors - whoever solved them won her, otherwise, lost his head.  A tartar prince in exhile, Calaf won the battle and won her heart with a manly kiss.

Ridiculous stuff for sure.  However, beneath the ridiculousness and operative monstrosity, there were deeper meanings which eluded Puccini, whose specialty was small scaled daily emotion, detached from the social fabric.  His Madama Butterfly, his La bohème could be transport into any similar situation in any social and temporal setting, gaining universality but losing depth of social commentary as in Verdi or psychological insight as in Wagner. 

If it were Verdi, he would not have failed to pick out the elements of cultural clash between the female dominant, docile court of China, though hiding behind a bloody curtain, and that of the intrusive militant, male outsiders.  If it were Wagner, what a drama of battle of sexes we would have gain?  In Puccini's hand, we got a gloriously melodic opera celebrating two most insensitive protagonists on stage.  A lost opportunity, perhaps.  However, we do need our bonbons.

One of the illustrations Aubrey Beardsley
produced for the first English
edition of Wilde's play Salome (1894)
Watching the severed head of a losing suitor, I remembered another princess who liked to lob off head, this time, to gratify her own sexual desire - Princess Salome, courtesy of Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss.

Awakening sexually on stage, and intrigued by the beauty of John the Baptist, who repulsed her advances, Salome demanded the head of Saint John on a silver platter and kissed the mouth of the severed head and tasted the blood.  In less than two hours time, Strauss presented us a spoiled child growing into a monstrous woman in a highly corrupted court and innocence lost.  His music was much more disturbing, way less heart tugging than Puccini's, but ultimately much, much more satisfying.

San Francisco Opera will present Turandot three more times this November - don't miss the rousing music, despite the gaudy and silly sets and costumes.

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