Sexual obsession underscores the story and music of Turandot

October 11, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

The conventional wisdom about "Turandot," Puccini's last operatic extravaganza about sex and sadism in excelsus, is that the great composer couldn't finish the opera because of his death from throat cancer in 1924. The falling off in quality in "Turandot's" final 15 minutes is usually blamed on the failure of Franco Alfano, the composer hired to complete the work from Puccini's sketches, to meet the Puccinian standard.

But one suspects that the real reason for the opera's sputtering in its final moments is that "Turandot" itself had come to a dead end months before the composer's death: Puccini himself was unable to imagine what manner of love could exist between his fiery hero and the icy princess who gives the opera its name. Whether or not Puccini intended it (and one believes he didn't), "Turandot" is a musico-theatrical study of obsessive love, which, by its nature, is incapable of a successful resolution.

"Turandot," which the Baltimore Opera Company will present for a run of four performances beginning Saturday, is a grisly, flesh-and-blood fairy tale about a Chinese princess who beheads her suitors after they fail to solve the three enigmas she proposes. Her murderous chastity comes to an end when an unknown prince solves the riddles and finally -- after abandoning his father and passively watching while the slave girl who loves him is tortured -- conquers her with a violent kiss.

Operas tend to be songs of love and death and many operatic composers are interested in women in distress because the high female voice registers extremes of human emotion that no instrument can match. But Puccini's imagination was particularly stimulated by the plight of acutely suffering women; one need only think of Mimi (in "La Boheme"), of Tosca and Butterfly.

In "Turandot," however, the composer set out to do something more ambitious. The type of the long-suffering woman is there in the slave girl, Liu but this heroine is no victim: Turandot is a woman who makes men suffer.But perhaps the most interesting departure is -- despite the title -- that it's not the heroine who is the focus, but the hero, Calaf. Puccini and his librettists put Calaf at the apex of a triangle between Turandot and Liu. Since he is both object (the subject of Liu's love) and subject (to his passion for Turandot), he possesses a prominence achieved by no other hero in the Puccini canon.

Much earlier in his career -- in his first great opera, "Manon Lescaut" -- Puccini had depicted the suffering a man might endure because of his love for a woman. But in "Turandot" he seems to go further. One says "seems" because, while "Turandot" is a great work (except for Alfano's finale), it is a limited one. And it is limited because the human inadequacies built into the opera made it impossible for the composer to finish a work that he believed -- quite falsely -- to be about love. For its real subject is obsessive desire, a longing that is an addiction to erotic fantasy.

The prince displays all the signs of such addiction. It is not simply that Calaf falls desperately in love with Turandot at first sight, but that he is willing to sacrifice not merely his life, but also that of his father and Liu, and, if necessary, all the inhabitants of Peking. In the third act, when the chorus pleads with him to leave the city so that the princess will not turn it into a charnel house in order to avoid marriage, he replies (accompanied by Puccini's grandest music), "Useless entreaties! Vain threats! Though the skies fall, I will have Turandot!"

And what of the woman for whom he sacrifices so much (and for whom he is willing to sacrifice much more)? Put simply, she is a version of what the poet John Keats, a century earlier, called "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." She is beautiful and without apparent human feeling, and -- above all -- she is unattainable. Her unattainability has very little to do with her chastity and a great deal to do with her emotional inaccessibility. Bizet's Carmen, who makes herself sexually available to any man she chooses, is another version of the Belle Dame. What drives men crazy for Carmen is that, while she gives them her body, she does not give them her self. When Turandot, over music that heats the blood, sings "No man shall possess me," she is talking about more than sex. She is the opposite of characters such as Butterfly or Liu, who are willing to sacrifice all for love.

Male fantasy

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