Turandot is one messed up love story

Turandot GigCity Edmonton operaPuccini’s Turandot is a maddening, brilliant mess that goes against every shred of decency, logic and common sense – but that’s opera for you.

It was a crazy old story seen at Edmonton Opera’s spectacular season opener Saturday night: A strong-willed princess whose best friend was murdered by a man takes revenge against an entire gender and vows never to be “possessed” by any man – despite the law that she must marry. So she sets up three impossible riddles to thwart potential suitors. To fail is to die. Her dad, the antler-headed emperor who has to be sung in with “may he live 10,000 years” every single time, goes along with this plan. Sounds like he’s never say no to his daughter. One by one, various eligible princes get their heads cut off with much pomp and circumstance, until one stranger – who only saw the princess once, emerging from some weird bubble – comes along to correctly answer the questions and win Turandot’s hand in marriage.

Sample riddle: “A shining spirit flies through the night, spreading its wings over infinite humanity. All the world calls on it and implores it, but the spirit disappears with the dawn to revive in the heart, and every night it is reborn, and every day it dies again.”

Hope. The answer is hope.

Of course she still refuses. She won’t even look at him. So the guy stupidly offers her a second chance to take his life by asking her to guess his name by dawn. It’s not Rumpelstiltskin. She sends an edict out to the entire village: Find out the stranger’s name – or everybody dies. Everybody. She’d rather destroy her entire kingdom than be with him. One woman suspected to have been in love with the stranger is captured and tortured, but doesn’t give up his name. “I take the pain as a gift,” she says, just before being stabbed to death. Spoiler alert.

And the guy still doesn’t get the hint. He still wants the princess. He’s in love. That’s opera for you.

Turandot – unfinished before Giacomo Puccini’s death in 1924 and stitched together for production by Italian composer Franco Alfano two years later – is set in ancient China and loaded with stereotypes both musical and lyrical. The clownish court ministers are named Ping, Pang and Pong.

In short, this opera is both racist and sexist.

There’s your problem: How to whitewash, so to speak, and make politically correct the incorrect preconceptions of the past? People were so dumb back then. They’ll be saying that about us in the future. Puccini – a true genius – never even went to China. He got his information from books, and stories, and he fell in love. Also inspired by old Persian stories, Turandot was actually banned in China for many decades – but is now the most popular opera produced there.

Getting to the Edmonton production, no fault can be found. It’s a lavish show. The sets were gorgeous. The chorus with their costumes were amazing, filling the room with Puccini’s melodies with no amplification. The orchestra in the pit provided beautiful, complicated accompaniment to music that veered madly from consonance to dissonance, from atonality to parts that were almost corny. Remember this is something of a Frankenstein opera. Puccini clearly got most of the guts down before he died.

As the titular character, Othalie Graham is terrific, playing the perfect cruel Chinese princess with soaring high notes and a riveting presence. The best singer of the show is Michele Capalbo, playing the hapless doormat Liu – foolishly in love with the idiot stranger who doesn’t love her back. Her voice is like an angel, almost outworldly. Ping, Pang and Pong (Geoffrey Sirett, James McLennan and Christopher Mayell, respectively) were a lot of fun. The imposing tenor David Pomeroy plays the stranger – and he’s the one who gets to sing Nessun Dorma, the most famous opera aria ever written. Takes a lot of guts to tackle the song Pavarotti made famous. More proof this composer was a genius whose work still holds up today, racist, sexist or whatever.

By the way, the stranger’s name is Calef, son of Timur!

Off with his head!

Turnadot repeats Tuesday, Oct. 25 and Thursday, Oct. 27 at the Jubilee Auditorium.

Photos by Nanc Price

Turandot GigCity Edmonton opera