No one likes a good sing song better than I. And last night that's what we got, a bloody good sing along with Puccini. Except, there's something very unhinged about the man. Yesterday evening it was the Royal Opera House giving us their 1984 version of "Turandot". Lavish wasn't the word, they really went to town with the set and costumes. Huge, in one case very huge, international singers - don't ask me their names, lovely music and all for what? Possibly the nastiest story line about two of the nastiest people you'll ever have the misfortune to meet.
The storyboard is fairly straightforward. There's Turandot, a nasty piece of work, Princess of China who has a worrying habit of de-capitating marriage suitors who fail to answer 3 questions.
The opera opens with the Prince of Persia about to lose his head. In the crowd waiting to witness the Chop Suey, we find the blind, old exiled King Timur of Tartary and his young slave girl Liu heavily disguised as the dispossessed. They meet Timur's son Calaf who recognises his old man and Liu. Liu holds a very large candle for Calaf. Much happiness at the re-union with much singing.
This joy is cut short by the appearance of the Wicked Witch of the East, Turandot, dressed all in white and looking appropriately stern and unbending. She confirms the poor Prince of Persia's execution and off with 'is head.
However, Calaf whilst not too happy with the execution surprisingly is smitten by Mrs T, and vows to win her, despite risking a nasty head lopping off himself. But so bold (deranged,egotistical, I'd say) is he, he'll not listen to the pleas of his dad and lovely, if diminutive, Liu whose foghorn voice betrays her small stature. Instead of leaving with them he bangs a huge gong signifying his intent to answer the three questions (Think Mastermind with Noodles).
In the Second Act we find Turandot's dad the Emperor Altoum trying persuade Calaf, who now goes by the name of the "Unknown Prince" to leave, warning him that he'll lose his head if he gets one of the questions wrong. Calaf will have none of this.
You have to admire Calaf. While all this is happening a troupe of sages carrying large scrolls containing the questions arrive as do Turandot's Ministers, the loveable, if slightly sadistic, Ping, Pong and Pang. The Emperor himself is suspended on a large pouffe looking remarkably like Dumbledore.
Then there's the Princess herself. In what can only be described as possibly one of the worse examples of self justification ever, Mrs T explains that she sees herself as the re-incarnation of one of her female ancestors who was raped and murdered by an invader. She vows that no one shall have his wicked way with her. (At this point I couldn't help thinking that if that was what she wanted why all the palaver with the Princes, the Riddles and the numerous Beheadings). The riddles are her only concession.
Anyway, she puts on her sternest face, rises to her maximum height and asks the "Unknown Prince" the first riddle. You've guessed it - he gives the right answer. Much huffing and puffing from the Princess, much excitement from the Court. He gets the second and the third questions spot on. He's won her fair and square.
Except the devious creature will have none of it and asks would Calaf claim her as she's unwilling to be his. (I have to say this I thought was a pretty bad show: but what can you expect from an Italian). Calaf, not content with his win and being such a bumptious bastard says he will only claim her if she cannot discover his name. If she does he'll die at dawn.
When the Third Act opens we find all of Peking awake trying to discover the Unknown Prince's name. The reason is clear. If they don't and she's forced into the Prince's arms life as a citizen of that great city won't be worth a Peking Duck. Calaf strikes up " Nessun dorma" and you expect to see replays of England's brave, if futile, attempt to win the World Cup in Rome and a Tearful Gazza. Mrs T then realises that lovely Liu should know Calaf's name but Liu refuses to tell. Such is her love for him. So she's tortured by Ping, Pong and Pang and is about to be be-headed when she slits her own throat.
The last scene is most unsatisfactory (Puccini having by this time died). Calaf tells Turandot his name; he's now in her power. She summons the Court, her dad and the people: surely he's a gonna. Mrs T announces that she knows the Unknown Prince's name ..it is Love! ( I know, a total cop out). They embrace and everything is o.k. unless you are one of the 15 or so decapitated Princes and Liu.
This was all too much for me. Beheadings, rape, murder and two totally dysfunctional leading characters. Surely Freud would have something to say about this. Indeed he does, or at least his interpreters do.
There is little I can add to Katherine Mitchell's 2012 essay "Making the World Weep"? Decapitation/Castration in Puccini's Turandot.:
"... early twentieth-century audiences saw in Puccini’s lamenting heroines a kind of fetishized erotic sainthood in their suffering and ‘envoicing’ thanks to their psychological strength and ability to endure agony for the sake of love and male domination."
You can't say fairer than that.