Sunday, August 23, 2015

Listening Library: Turandot

There's nothing like blasting an opera on the stereo to help oneself settle into a new place; this is a credo by which I proudly live. And I have found it to be particularly salutary in the eerie quiet of a carpeted house. (I'm still suffering from NYC-withdrawal.) Turandot may seem an odd choice to inaugurate my listening sessions here. It is, by almost any standard, one of the most unloveable of operas. Being unfinished, it's in many ways an oddly unfulfilled work. Moreover, it is, even by the criteria of opera's mostly-nineteenth-century standard repertory, astonishingly sexist and racist/Orientalist. It's a mess. However. It is--to me--musically fascinating. (Lots of Aida productions have managed to leave the banks of the Nile behind; I'm waiting for Turandot to make a more decisive break from China.) The score, evocative and experimental, not only shows Puccini's technical mastery, but shows him pushing the expressive potential of that mastery in new ways. I am a well-documented sucker for all the emotional manipulation of Puccini's mid-career standards, and believe them to be unfairly mired in a largely kitschy production history (cf. William Berger). But Turandot, with its disturbed characters, disturbing libretto, and unquiet musical undercurrents, manages to an unusual degree to transcend its own surface narrative, at least for me as a listener. It has also benefitted from what has to be one of the great vocal lineups of opera recording history.

The 1965 studio Turandot with Nilsson, Corelli, and Scotto was one of my earliest acquisitions. I'm still glad to have it on hand; the orchestral sound is clean and the dynamics are subtle. Many are the great moments: the mourning of the slaves with uncanny quality like that of a Greek chorus; the building, relentless tension of the famous riddle scene; the chaotic crowd scenes and unexpected intimacies of the first act. In an opera where much of the drama involves divided spaces and unexpected encounters, the recording seems to suggest squares and gardens rather than a recording studio. The real wonder, though, is the voices. Renata Scotto sings a Liu of enormous dignity and courage, willing to speak when she is expected to be silent, and to be silent when she is commanded to speak. The Calaf of Franco Corelli is believably dangerous, damaged, and driven. And, of course, there is the breathtaking, steely grandeur of Nilsson's legendary soprano. The superb quality of this recording invites me to listen to it repeatedly, to try to tease out the layers in the music, to speculate on what a really interesting Turandot production--if such a thing is possible--might look like.

It positively pains me to see the three ministers treated as a sort of comic turn. What they do is, first, to promote the maintenance of the dysfunctional status quo, and then to watch its disruption with unseemly avidity... with a strangely plaintive interlude in which they lament their erstwhile loves for nature, philosophy, solitude. Is this nostalgia the sinister self-delusion of men who have lost their souls, or does it express something far truer than their ironic, jangling anticipation of a violently enforced peace? In Timur and Liu we have an exiled king and the erstwhile slave who chose to follow him as a servant rather than pass to his supplanter as a chattel. Calaf, while his vocal heroics may be, at first glance, predictable, is a curious character: he is a hunted fugitive with nothing to lose; a former prince who moves instinctively into a crowd to help an infirm beggar. He is a man who seems to long for nothing so much as death. For all his denials of this fact, he moves with fanatical zeal towards the ritual that has proved invariably fatal; he speaks of being intoxicated by the glamour of the princess who is very like a goddess of death. And even at the last he gives his life into the hands of this same princess, a woman who is half-choked with anger. Turandot herself is, on the surface of things, a near-cipher with some staggeringly gorgeous music (an all-too-common problem for sopranos.) But this is a woman who, outraged by the long history of violence against women, has created something like an alternate justice system. (I can't really bring myself to pity the stupid beheaded princes.) The relationship between Turandot's ritualized and absolute power over the court and the entire rest of the society is less than clear, frustratingly. But it's a question which, I dare to hope, might be creatively answered. In the meantime, this is a recording that makes a good case for the unfinished work as a tantalizing one. 

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