Sunday, August 28, 2011

Princess Turandot

San Francisco Opera is to open its new season with Puccini's Turandot, which was based on the great Italian dramatist Carlo Gozzi's play, which also had source from Persian.  Wikipedia stated that "Turandot is a Persian word and name meaning "the daughter of Turan", Turan being a region of Central Asia which used to be part of the Persian Empire."  The location of the story moved from Central Asian to Mongol (a 1710 fable by French scholar François Pétis de La Croix) and finally China (Gozzi, 1762).  Turandot was used as the name of the princess in Puccini's opera.

The story in Puccini's version was a deposed blind Tartar King Timur and slaved Liù came to China.  Unknown to them, his son Calaf arrived in Peking as well.  Princess Turandot, in the dark shadow of her female ancestor was brutally slain by a conquering prince, was determined not to be conquered by any male.  She posed three riddles for prince suitors.  Whoever could solve the riddles would win her and the throne, or lose his head if failed.  Calaf entered the race and solved the riddles.  In a moment of bravado, he gave Turandot another chance - if she could guess his name, he would be at her disposal.  Turandot tortured Liù for answer.  Liù, in love with Calaf killed herself and Turandot learned what love was through her sacrifice and Turandot and Calaf sang a love-duet over Liù's neglected body.

Fairy tale stuff.

I saw it once, several years ago, in the same David Hockney production, which was as fantastic as it was gaudy.  The costumes and makeups, particularly that of Turandot, was heavily influenced by the stylized Beijing Opera, and made a very poor princess - she looked definitely more like a Beijing Opera singer than a ethereal princess of China.  During imperial time, folk opera singers were no better than street beggars, social standing wise, therefore, it was quite ridiculous a sight of her to me.  No self-respecting princess in China would allow herself to dress up as a Beijing Opera Singer.  It just would not fly.

The male conquering a half-willing female with a great kiss was quite silly as well.  I also had trouble to sympathize with another little woman of Puccini, Liù, who sacrificed herself for an obvious cad.

I didn't believe that I'd see it again in the same production.  However, I had a new understanding of the opera and that made me eager to see it again.

Very recently, I realized that this is an allegory or prophecy about the history of China, written by foreigners.

Turandot can be seen as the embodiment of the Chinese people, who was keenly aware of the history of being invaded by barbaric - the Huns, the Mongols, the Manchus and the Japaneses and was determined to fend them off by all means, however cruel.

Seeing through lens of modern history, Calaf, the foreign prince suitor, can be seen as the seductive Communist ideas, personified by a Lenin, or better still a Stalin figure, who, not without struggle, conquered the half-reluctant, half-willing nation.

Or, seen through even more contemporary history, Calaf can be seen as a capitalist, say like Micheal Jackson, armed with Coca Cola, won the heart of the people of China and the feeble, aging emperor is the omnipresent portrait or bust of Mao Zedong.  For people who enjoy anachronism, a Steve Jobs armed with an iPad to tame the daughter of China is not out of line at all.

I never knew that western prophet could have such keen insight of China, and its history and people.  But I might only be dreaming.  When the opera is presented on the stage of War Memorial Opera House, it would be again, that gaudy and bombastic chinoiserie.

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