Even if you’ve never seen or listened to an opera in your life, you’ve heard Giacomo Puccini’s opera "Turandot."
You’ve heard it if you’ve watched any one of a dozen movies, from “The Killing Fields” to “Bend it Like Beckham,” or tuned into a World Cup Final sometime since 1990. It’s been covered and sampled by artists from Jeff Beck to Aretha Franklin to Jennifer Hudson. Not the whole opera, of course, but the most famous three minutes of it. Arguably the most famous three minutes in all of opera.
If there were a way for me to hum the tune for you, I guarantee you’d recognize the aria Nessun Dorma. This piece alone may be reason enough to head to the Taos Community Auditorium this Saturday for the Met Live in HD simulcast of "Turandot". Another reason to go is to take in — and possibly cringe at — the truly over-the-top visuals of Franco Zeffirelli’s iconic production, which the Met has been hauling out year after year since 1987.
Although it’s a longtime fan favorite and the sets and costumes are undeniably impressive, some might feel that it’s time to retire this old workhorse — this performance marks the third time in the past six years that it has featured in the Met’s Live in HD Series. But even the repeat viewer must admit that the spectacle of the main character, Princess Turandot, wearing 40 pounds of costume and apparently followed around by her own portable shower, is nothing, if not a sight to behold.
Unfortunately, the production’s problems extend past Liberace-level gaudiness. The opera, set in an unspecified historical period in China, contains some cultural stereotypes that Zeffirelli’s production occasionally amplifies rather than downplays. That said, it remains easy to enjoy Puccini’s soaring score, which incorporates some traditional Chinese melodies as well as his own take on eastern music, with only a few pangs of cultural appropriation.
Turandot is Puccini’s great unfinished masterpiece; the opera lacked a completed third act upon Puccini’s death in 1924. He left behind plentiful sketches, however, which were composed into the final act we see today by a young Italian composer named Franco Alfano. It is the tale of the original ice princess, who refuses to marry unless her suitor can correctly answer three riddles. At the opening of the opera, Turandot coldly orders the execution of a suitor who answered wrongly, which, surprisingly, fails to dissuade another from taking on the riddle challenge. This unnamed foreign prince shocks the princess by getting all three riddles right. She’s horrified at the idea of marrying this stranger (understandable, frankly), so he gives her a way out: if she can find out his name by dawn, she doesn’t have to marry him and can, in fact, have him beheaded like all the rest.
I was reminded at the recent Met Live in HD simulcast of Don Carlos that operas occasionally require a spoiler alert. Opera is unlike a movie or television series in that casts and productions are always changing. And although one may certainly watch a movie more than once, an opera-goer might see different productions of the same opera so many times that it becomes less about “what happens next” and more about “how the next scene will be performed this time.”
So sometimes we forget that not everyone knows that a certain character dies in the end (leaving aside the fact that it’s opera, and someone almost always dies in the end). Tenor Matthew Polenzani forgot that when he spoilered the death of one of the characters in a mid-opera interview during Don Carlos, causing some gasps and chuckles among the viewers at the TCA.
So I’m not going to tell you whether or not Turandot finds out the prince’s name or whether anyone dies in this opera, and hopefully the cast won’t spoil it either. Speaking of the cast, Turandot is an unusual opera in that we don’t hear the title character’s (magnificent) voice until the second act. It’s a terribly daunting role, one that requires a very powerful soprano voice and one that has occasionally been blamed for the ruination of a soprano’s career. (“She sang too many Turandots, and now she can’t sing at all.”) Thankfully, Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska is more than up to the challenge, although she swore a few years ago that she’d never sing the role again. We’re lucky that she reconsidered.
Tenor Yonghoon Lee, taking on the role of the unnamed prince, will undoubtedly do justice to Nessun Dorma, and the cast is rounded out by Ermonela Jaho as the loyal Liù, and legendary bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as the blind, displaced King Timur. It promises to be a flawless performance, and we can hope that the next time we see Turandot on the big screen, it will be with an equally flawless production.
Turandot will be simulcast in HD at 11 a.m. from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, preceded by a 10 a.m. talk by Vicki Zillioux, given by the Taos Opera Guild in support of the Santa Fe Opera. Information and tickets at tcataos.org.