Essays Literary sources

The Riddle of the 3 Riddles in “Turandot”

220px-Poster_TurandotThe Riddle of the 3 Riddles in “Turandot”

The plot of Puccini’s last opera “Turandot” hinges on the nameless suitor answering three riddles. Readers familiar with myth and folklore will instantly recognize this as an element common to many tales.

The suitor in “Turandot” is faced with having to answer three abstract riddles, the answers to which are “Hope,” “Blood,” and “Turandot.” (One wonders if each suitor got the same three, considering that they are read out loud and word must have gotten around if they were unchanged through the years!) If he wins, he gets the Princess; if he loses, he loses his head. Since Turandot herself is the cause of many deaths in the past, one should keep her association with Death in mind as we proceed in this essay.

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Careful of whom you ask questions!

In Wagner’s “Siegfried,” Wotan in his guise as The Wanderer, plays (as Anna Russell puts it in her spoof of the Ring Cycle) 20 Questions with Mime. The dwarf wages his head (cf. the wager in “Turandot”) that he can ask his guest three questions and then answer whatever three the guest proposes. Mime’s questions are easily answered by Wotan, and Wotan’s first two questions are easily answered by Mime. The last question, however, “Who will forge the sword?”, puts Mime in great jeopardy. Again, the last answer concerns an instrument of death—and again the contestant’s head is at stake.

Gold, silver, lead?

In Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” Bassanio is confronted with three caskets: gold, silver, lead. A portrait of his beloved Portia is in one. The audience knows which casket is the right one, because it has seen two other suitors choose the wrong ones. What is at stake here is Bassanio’s love and his need for money, both of which Portia is willing to satisfy—and indeed she has a song sung to Bassanio before he chooses in which most of the end words rhyme with “lead.”

Consider, now. Lead is associated with bullets and coffins, and is found deep in the earth. Again, Death lies in the third riddle.

In the folk tale, Goldilocks enters the house of the Three Bears. From the best bowl of porridge to the best bed, the first and second choices are too extreme while the third is always “just right.” When the anthropomorphic family returns, the little human barely escapes with her life—and a record of breaking and entering, I suppose.

1024px-Page_69_illustration_in_English_Fairy_TalesAnd what about the Three Little Pigs? The third survived the Big Bad Wolf, so perhaps death is not always the reward. Symbolism is not required to be consistent.


ts141207In myth, the shepherd Paris (or in some versions, Alexander) is suddenly faced with three naked goddesses, each of whom bribes him to award her the Golden Apple. Hera offers him the rule of Europe and Asia, Athena offers him the power to lead Troy to victory against the Greeks, Aphrodite offers him the fairest woman in the world. Since the latter is Helen of Sparta and her departure to Troy with Paris leads to the death of countless soldiers and citizens, that third choice seems yet again one of certain death.

One step back again to very early myth. The Moon appears in three phases. When full, it is Selina, Queen of Heaven. When it is in the shape of a bow, it is Artemis, the Huntress Queen of the Earth. When it is the New Moon (that is, no moon at all), it is black Hecate, Queen of the Underworld. And there we are again!

Beware that third wish, according to Dr. Freud

Freud considered this theme and concluded that humans will forever harbor a Death Wish, making choices that lead thereto. I see it from a different point of view. The very essence of three-ness is that three points form a triangle. Consider that nearly every comic opera plot concerns two characters of one sex in love with a third party of the other. In “Marriage of Figaro” there is the Figaro-Susanna-Count triangle; in “Oklahoma!” there is the Curly-Laurey-Judd triangle; in “The Mikado” we have Nanki Poo-Yum Yum-Ko Ko!

If we consider one of the males to be Thesis and the other Antithesis, there can be no Synthesis (i.e., a Happy Ending) unless the undesirable suitor bows out willingly or otherwise. This is the one of the great elements of comedy.

In tragic operas, however, that Synthesis can be brought about only in Death. So Aida and Radames can be united only in the tomb while Amneris curses the priests from above. Violetta and Mimi must both die of consumption because Life with the Beloved has proven impossible. Both Tannhauser and his Elizabeth must die to be united (one supposes) in a better world.

And of course the greatest example of love-in-death is that of Tristan and Isolde, as Wagner tells it. But more about that in some other essay.

Going full cycle, then, back to “Turandot,” her first kiss from a man suddenly brings her over to his way of looking at things and the opera ends happily (if one ignores the death of little Liu, the only really sympathetic character in this tale). And yet, a recent production of this opera (available on a DVD) takes a chance and has Turandot stab herself at the last moment, even as the chorus is singing about how wonderful life will be in Peking. Personally, I think the tenor doesn’t know how lucky he is!


“Merchant of Venice” Gets a Superior Reading

“Merchant of Venice” Gets a Superior Reading


By an interesting coincidence, a new CD recording of “The Merchant of Venice” appeared on the Naxos Audiobooks label. I finished hearing it on the very day that I watched an episode of the marvelous John Barton’s “Playing Shakespeare” master class on DVD in which Patrick Stewart and David Suchet switched Shylocks in some of that character’s famous moments.

Not only were their readings radically different but their very bodies and facial expressions added to the masterful but different characterizations. I belabor the obvious, because it is difficult to judge a performance accurately from an audio medium rather than from a visual one. I am sure that this Naxos version was based on the much celebrated performance of Antony Sher as Shylock. I found it hard to get a good idea of how he looked on stage; but he came across vocally as a man who has kept his dignity at the expense of great suffering all these years and is then driven into madness by his daughter running off with a good deal of his riches.

The question of the play’s anti-Semitism is best avoided here; but a lot depends on the Shylock to treat the subtext one way or the other.

Sher as Shylock in one of drama’s most terrible moments

The fact that the rest of the cast is just as greedy for money as Shylock is well handled in the non-vocal reactions, such as laughter at the money lender. Although his role is fairly small, Roger Allam creates a noble Antonio, while Emma Fielding (Portia) and Cathy Sara (Nerissa) handle their first scene with good pacing and humor. It is not clear if Portia knows in the trial scene exactly how she is going to beat Shylock or is winging it; but any director would be hard put to “show” that on a CD.

It is a good point that the Prince of Aragon (Sam Dastor) and Prince of Morocco (Ray Fearon) are not played as pantomime fools but show just enough arrogance to get what they deserve in choosing the wrong caskets. Good grades to Director John Tydeman.

Older recordings I have heard feature Tony Church, Hugh Griffith, and Trevor Peacock as Shylock. This new set surpasses them all.

The running time of the two CDs is 150 minutes and there are photos and brief bios of the cast.


“The Merchant of Venice” Loses to Modern Treatment

IMG_20150529_0001_NEW“The Merchant of Venice”  Loses to Modern Musical Treatment

There seems to be an agreement among current composers of what they insist on calling “operas” to avoid anything that sounds like a melody. So I had little hope that Andre Tchaikowsky’s “The Merchant of Venice” would be an exception. It is not, I concluded, after watching a 2013 performance at the Bregenz Festival on a EuroArts DVD.

By abridging Shakespeare’s text and adding many new lines, Librettist John O’Brien supplies the composer with all sorts of opportunities for memorable musical moments in this tale of high fantasy and ugly social commentary. But that is not Tchaikowsky’s purpose. Even the one song, “Tell me where is fancy bred,” sounds no more melodic than any of the other passages.

Okay, I am sure that some musicologists find wonderful things in this score. It is interesting to read in the program notes that the Polish-born Tchaikowsky “is no ordinary career pianist” and has a reputation for being “difficult.” It also says that he finds the piano concertos of Grieg, Tchaikovksy and Rachmaninoff “corny.” Well, in an age of ugliness when jeans are purchased already in shreds, beautiful music would be anathema to some! (Yet he professes to like Mozart.)

The composer’s technique seems to be a series of seemingly arbitrary vocal pitches, with certain syllables given three notes, such as “be-cau-au-ause,” for no apparent reason. And when in two cases, the singer suddenly speaks a line, I wonder why they all don’t simply speak all the lines and be done with it. Yes, I am perhaps not privy to the secret code that is understood by the conductor and singers.

In a 50-minute “making of” film, the singers state that the vocal lines looked too difficult at first but proved “singable.” Well, the vocal lines of Bizet, Verdi, and dozens of other “corny” composers are certainly singable without looking difficult. Does a difficult score make it a good score by definition?

In a like manner, Director Keith Warner has chosen to set the play around the start of the last century (dull costumes) with a series of walls for the street scenes (dull scenery) and a maze for Portia’s palace at Belmont (dull symbolism). The Prince of Aragon is a comic mime while the Prince of Morocco is a gymnastic dancer.

Shylock’s trial is powerful, not because of the music, but because of the situation. Adrian Erod plays the moneylender sympathetically (as is done in all recent productions of Shakespeare’s play), while Magdalena Anna Hofmann’s Portia turns from the fairy princess of the earlier scenes to a woman as bigoted and revengeful as the others.

The role of Antonio is given to a countertenor, Christopher Ainslie, who is directed to give his buddy Bassanio (Charles Workman) a big kiss on the mouth, thereby taking away all the subtlety of their relationship as it is in the original play.

All in all, I can find little fault in the singers’ ability to cope with this music—I find Erod’s voice especially appealing—but I just have trouble listening to this score. I read that the English National Opera turned down this work in 1984, so this 2013 production was its premiere. The notes go on to say that another of Tchaikowsky’s operas was not well received by “some rather unimaginative critics.” Poor benighted souls!

Well, I can only give my reaction to this work. Others might vehemently disagree.

The disc holding the performances runs 160 minutes. The work is in English and the subtitles are a real help. An extra disc holds only the 50-minute set of interviews.

download (3)Note: Several other operas based on Shakespeare’s works suffer from the composers’ trying to set the original script to music. A good example is Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” commissioned for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center and flopped. In my mind, the best English language opera in this field is Vaughan Williams’ “Sir John in Love,” in which he cut the original text to a minimum and inserted the loveliest of English folk songs. But of course Vaughan Williams lived at time when melody was expected and composers knew how to create it.