<< -- 2 -- Rex Harley SUSPENDING DISBELIEF?
Scene two begins when they pull down the banner to reveal stalls crowded with the spectators for Calaf's trial-by-riddle. They are lit by a lurid green light. The walls of the stage, in exact contrast, are as luridly purple. During this scene, the chorus behaves as one, covering their faces with their fans whenever Turandot's rage threatens to turn on them. Actions are stylized, choreographed. A secondary use of contrasts is evident in the placing of the aged emperor, clad in cloth of gold, and the aged Timur, slumped in his colourless rags against the back of the imperial purple throne.
By contrast, the fussiest moments come early on in Act I. Psychologically, they're also the most annoying. Members of the chorus, dressed like prison warders, wrestle with each other -- male with female -- as they get high on their collective blood lust. The Prince of Persia, led to his execution, pauses for a little phallic dalliance with the executioner's weapon. And the chorus, their frenzy over, suffer a kind of 'cold turkey' during which they spin round, scratch their heads and wander in a daze. I just closed my eyes and listened to the music.
Act III also produced, unintentionally, the funniest moment of the opera. Ping, Pang and Pong attempt to seduce Calaf into revealing his name with inducements of money, sex and escape. The female members of the chorus are ushered on stage and Calaf invited to consider their beauty and their 'lithe bodies'. What the audience saw was a procession of predominantly dumpy ladies dressed unflatteringly in judo suits and wearing Louise-Brooks-look-alike wigs. Suspension of disbelief on a grand scale!
Act III has its other problems, of course, the main one being that Puccini didn't write the end of it. But it would be a brave producer who cut out the final big scene between Calaf and Turandot, and left us with the dying slave girl, Liù, instead. The music is a faithful pastiche of the rest of the opera; no more. And in its striving for a grand climax it succeeds only in sounding hollow. But even had Puccini lived, it is hard to see how he could have reconciled the cold sadism of Turandot in ordering Liù to be tortured, then watching unflinchingly as she dies, with the 'born-again' princess whose heart is made human by Calaf and who declares to the world, 'His name is Love.'
Copyright © 25 September 2004
Rex Harley, Cardiff UK