FGO's Turandot: Ridiculous and beautiful
Florida Grand Opera's production of Turandot.
Deborah Gray Mitchell
Most operas are too long for the modern sensibility. They are full of too much unnecessary, redundant exposition. There is a great deal of posturing by singers while the orchestra elaborates on unimportant themes. So I recommend spending the blather time at the Arsht Center's Bombay Sapphire Lounge sipping on a very tall Johnny Walker Black with a splash of soda water. (This drink is called a Hitchens, after the essayist Christopher.)
If you use this splendid strategy for Florida Grand Opera's season opener, Turandot, you'll be able to check out the program. The opera publishes only one of them for a season, so you'll also be able to read about the world premiere of Cyrano, The Tales of Hoffmann, and Don Giovanni.
And you'll be able to work through this opera's story. To wit: In Peking — same thing as Beijing — there is a princess named Turandot who will wed the first royal suitor to answer three riddles correctly. Suitors who fail will be beheaded. The iffy cost-benefit analysis has, alas, not dissuaded many suitors. Heads have rolled all summer, just as they did last summer and the summer before. The prince of Persia is about to be beheaded, and the blood-crazy mob is getting restless. An old beggar falls to the floor and is helped to his feet by his slave girl and best friend, Liu.
Witnessing this, a strapping young man named Calaf recognizes the beggar as his father, the deposed king of Tartary. There is a happy reunion — surprisingly happy, given the gloomy circumstances — and then the prince of Persia is dragged to the chopping block. The crowd, seeing that the prince is kind of cute, begs for his life. Turandot appears and denies him clemency. Calaf, seeing Turandot for the first time, is immediately lovesick. As the executioner prepares to behead the prince, Calaf feels a stirring in his loins.
He reveals his intention to win Turandot's hand. A trio of singing holy men named Ping, Pang, and Pong attempts to dissuade him but cannot. Calaf is too horned up. Ghosts of dead suitors try to dissuade him, and they fail as well. Liu begs. Fails. Calaf rings a gong, thereby initiating the riddling proceedings. There is an intermission.
During the second act, the narrative heats up. Ping, Pang, and Pong lament the recent bloodshed. The crowd arrives to witness the riddling. After some lengthy musicking, Turandot appears and explains her man-hatred, rather too elaborately. (She seems defensive. You wonder, Is she a lesbian?) She riddles Calaf, and Calaf correctly answers all of the riddles. Turandot is unhappy. She tries to call off the engagement. Calaf gives her an out: If anyone can guess his name before sunrise the next day, he will not only not marry Turandot but also allow himself to be executed.
All of this is happening in a Peking that has been reimagined as a kind of primeval forest. The emperor sits atop a dragon whose body twists into the red distance. Bedecked in costumes that look like the result of a frenzied mating between Late Imperial China and Mardi Gras, John Keene's chorus buoys the dubious narrative on warm, soft clouds of sound. Ramon Tebar's conducting is stately, and the music is Puccini's loveliest. Perhaps a little puzzled by Calaf's ardor, but enjoying a nice aesthetic buzz, we break for the second intermission.
You'll want to get a second whisky here. (Not Johnny Walker; try the Dewar's from the concession stand.) Meditate upon what you have seen. What is it about self-centered women that drives men so wild? What's so great about love that it can push us to suicidal risks for homicidal maniacs? Is it a Chinese thing? An opera thing? A human thing?
The intermission is only 20 minutes long, hardly enough time to formulate a satisfactory answer. The opera resumes. Calaf sings the famous aria "Nessun Dorma," holding a high B-flat so long he has no wind for the note that follows. Meanwhile, we learn that Turandot's guards are going from house to house, dragging people out of bed, demanding to know Calaf's name and killing them if they cannot provide it. Morning arrives, and Turandot has realized that Liu and the deposed king know Calaf's name. She tortures them. Liu, who has fallen in love with Calaf, stabs herself rather than reveal his name. Calaf's father is grief-stricken — Liu was his only friend. But Calaf sings a nice song, which segues into a nice duet, and Turandot's heart melts. They love each other. There will be a wedding. China rejoices. The lovers sing out the opera.
I would pay serious money to know what kind of relationship might develop between the in-laws, or to find out what self-respecting Persian monarch would let foreign heads of state lop off the heads of his progeny with impunity. Would that there were another act.
But there isn't, so we are left with the lumpen thing as is. FGO has pulled together a really beautiful production. Tebar conducts his orchestra with great feeling and warmth, if imperfect sensitivity to the demands of his singers. (Sometimes during the recitative, it seems they're about to fall off-rhythm.) Frank Porretta, as Calaf, has a fine heroic instrument, though he saves a bit too much for the big notes; at times he gets lost in ensemble, especially when singing against Lise Lindstrom as Turandot. She has a voice that is downright dinosaurian — in the second act, she occasionally drowns out the orchestra.
But the night's most compelling singing comes from the comparably unknown Elizabeth Caballero, a young lyric soprano who has largely made her career with FGO. Her tones are limpid, creamy, Tebaldian. And she can act. As Caballero sings, you really might believe that a girl could fall in love with a man self-centered enough to sing away the night as innocents are murdered because of his googly-eyed obstinacy. Which is touching, I suppose, if a little depressing. We already knew love makes us blind. Did we need to know it makes us sociopaths as well?
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Miami and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.