Three Puccini operas as they were performed at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, are now offered as a boxed set of three OpusArte DVDs, titled simply “Puccini.”
The La Boheme, conducted by Andris Nelsons, was performed in 2011 and I rate it as the best staging of the work I have seen. My favorite bits of business come in Act II when we get to see the cook at the Café Momus and see Musetta (Inna Dukach) shoot some pool before her waltz song. The leads, Teodor Ilincai (Rodolfo) and Hibla Gerzmava (Mimi) are attractive—although physically not quite starving or consumptive respectively; while the other Bohemians—Marcello (Gabriele Viviani), Colline (Kostas Smoriginas) and Schaunard (Jacques Imbrailo)—are completely inside their roles.
Vocally, they are all top notch. Some details of the orchestration, as conducted by Andris Nelsons, are lost in the big house acoustics. Perhaps I am overly conscious of this having spent years listening to studio recordings where these details are quite clear.
Tosca (2006), conducted by Antonio Pappano, has a good Mario in Jonas Kaufmann, while Angela Gheorghiu’s Tosca is more fiery than usual and prone to a bit of overacting. Bryn Terfel so hams it up as Scarpia that if he had a mustache he would twirl it. It was a bad choice to have separated him physically from the rest of the chorus during the mass that ends Act I, the point being that he should be among the worshippers and still “forget God.”
Having no blood on the knife or even on Tosca’s gown or hands is something of a mistake; and having blood all over her written safe conduct is another. (You do know the plot, don’t you?)
Antonio Pappano conducts the dramatic score with lots of energy.
The Turandot (2014) has two faults. Marco Berti is simply not attractive enough for the role of Calaf. (I hope I am not being politically incorrect, but I do believe that looks are important in the theater.) More important the work is staged as a play within a play. The chorus, which is an important character in this work, is all on balconies upstage, while the soloists and dancers move about the stage proper.
All of this not very original concept simply removes the characters two levels away from reality and it is difficult to care about them. This is a shame, because Lise Lindstrom is a very human Turandot and Eri Nakamura a very sympathetic Liu.
The colorful score is well served by conductor Henrik Nanasi.
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.
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.
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.
And 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.
In 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!
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!
Some while ago, I wrote a series of articles about operas based on myths. Now I want to examine a certain mythic theme that shows up in operas. Having just listened to a recording of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” for the purposes of a review, the theme of the “Unknown Wooer” or the “Unknown Husband” came readily to mind.
The oldest version is that of Apuleius in the 5th century. Here we have a young girl married to a man she must never look upon. When, Cinderella-like, she is taunted by her sisters, she sees him sleeping, learns it is Cupid himself, and loses him for her disobedience. You see, “Love cannot live where there is no trust” (as Edith Hamilton translates it).
Well, the story of Elsa and Lohengrin bears too strong a resemblance to be a mere coincidence. Accused by Friedrich and his evil wife Ortrud of murdering her brother, Elsa is championed by a wondrous knight who arrives pulled to shore by a swan and easily defeats Elsa’s accuser. Since she has already announced that her champion will also be her husband, the knight agrees but on the sole condition that she never ask his name or origins.
Ortrud easily convinces the otherwise perfect Elsa that her accuser had been overcome by magic, and that Elsa had best find out the forbidden details lest she be wed to a sorcerer. True to the tradition of Eve in the story, Elsa cannot resist the temptation and asks her husband on their bridal night. Now he must tell his secret to the whole world, but he can no longer stay with her.
It turns out that he is the Knight of the Holy Grail, Lohengrin, the son of Parzifal; and off he goes, pulled by his “beloved swan”–which just happens to be Elsa’s missing brother, transformed by Ortrud to advance her husband’s status. As for Elsa, there is nothing for it but to sink to the ground as her virtuous spouse sails off.
There is a neat twist on this theme in Puccini’s “Turandot.” Here a nameless suitor successfully answers three riddles at the risk of his head and wins the haughty Princess Turandot as his bride. But in a burst of fair play, he tells her that he will lose his head if she can find out his name before dawn.
Another variation comes in Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” in which his new bride Judith cannot resist insisting that he show her the contents of several rooms in the castle. The last one contains all his former wives, who asked the same fatal question about that room, and she joins them as he laments her loss.
(You might even think of “The Mikado,” in which a semi-divine man, Nanki-Poo, is disguised as a wand’ring minstrel; but he willingly reveals his identity as soon as he is alone with Yum-Yum, so that does not count.)
Now what exactly is the meaning of all this? One very obvious similarity is that it is always the Male who imposes the conditions for marriage; and I suppose (alas) that historically this is the correct way of doing things. But why should a man impose such ignorance upon a bride to begin with? Cupid would not allow himself to be seen, no less named. We know from other Greek myths and writers of the time that while Immortals often succumbed to the charms of mortals, they felt degraded afterwards. This, perhaps, lets us into Cupid’s motivation for imposing those restrictions. He was, of course, an immortal and they worked by their set of rules.
Lohengrin was a little more than simply mortal, but he had all sorts of divine backing, which imposed upon him the the duty not to reveal himself. Therefore he had to make those demands on Elsa, since he was required to do so. The Prince in “Turandot” was just being a Good Sport and did not want her in the mood she was in when he unexpectedly won her.
Granted: males can impose conditions and females cannot. But why this condition? Why the prohibition against asking a name? We know that in very ancient Greece, you could put a curse on a chap by scraping his name into a piece of lead and throwing it into the sea. The name IS the man. If you do not know my name, you do not know me; and if you do not know me, I am not vulnerable to you, I am in no danger from you, you have no power over me.
Well, that seems to fit Cupid and Lohengrin to a greater and lesser degree. The Prince is daring Turandot to find his name, knowing full well that she will not succeed. Though why this should make her love him is only for the mythographers to say. Bluebeard might bring us closer to the answer by forbidding his wife to look into his rooms. Of course, here the symbolism is pretty obvious. The rooms of a man’s mind are not always open to others, even to a Beloved. So it is not so much No Girls Allowed but more of a general No Admittance, Private Property to one and all.
I am not offering any definitive answers. Just consider the power of this mythic element and perhaps ask yourself a few questions.