Riddles are at the heart of Giacomo Puccini’s "Turandot," but for years conventional wisdom has held that the opera’s biggest riddle is one the composer never could solve: How to write a happy ending for a couple who have behaved in unsympathetic ways. Not only does the title character send dozens of would-be husbands to their deaths, but her latest suitor still wants to marry her after watching her torture an innocent woman — who is motivated by unrequited love for him — to the point of suicide.
Renaud Doucet and André Barbe believe that Puccini did solve the riddle and that their production of the opera makes it clear why.
Riddle me this
Utah Opera presents Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot.” The opera is sung in Italian, with Supertitles in English.
When » Opens Saturday, March 15, 7:30 p.m.; evening performances continue March 17, 19 and 21, with a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday, March 23.
Where » Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City.
Tickets » $18 to $95 ($5 more on performance day; $15 rush tickets available on performance day for patrons 30 and younger) at www.utahopera.org.
Running time » 2 ½ hours, including intermission.
In a nutshell » A princess decrees death for all suitors who fail to solve her riddles. Can a mysterious prince, singing one of the most popular arias of all time, melt her icy heart?
Learn more » Utah Opera principal coach Carol Anderson will give a lecture at the back of the theater an hour before curtain, and artistic director Christopher McBeth will do a Q&A at the front of the theater after each performance. Additionally, Susan Neimoyer, an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Utah, has posted background information at www.utahopera.org/onlinelearning.
And » As part of Utah Symphony | Utah Opera’s “Silk & Spices” cultural festival, the March 19 performance will be preceded by a southern Chinese dinner at the Hong Kong Tea House, 565 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City. Tickets, which do not include alcohol or opera admission, are $30 at 801-533-NOTE. Visit www.utahopera.org/festival for more information.
Utah Opera is sponsoring a video contest with a pair of season subscriptions as the prize. Make a 30- to 60-second video portraying your favorite opera scene; the company’s marketing department produced a sock-puppet version of “Turandot,” shown above, as an example. The winner will be chosen by a popular vote on Utah Opera’s Facebook page. Submission deadline is March 21. See http://www.utahopera.org/videoContest for the rules and other details.
"All the humanity of Turandot is explained in the last duet," said choreographer and stage director Doucet. (Barbe, his creative partner, designed the sets and costumes for the production, which Utah Opera will present beginning Saturday, March 15, in the Capitol Theatre.)
Turandot is a Chinese princess notorious for her cruelty and her trust issues. She decrees that she will marry the first man who can solve her three riddles and execute any suitor who cannot. Ostensibly, she is out to avenge the rape and murder of an ancestor, but she also is afraid to love. It isn’t that she enjoys watching all these men get beheaded, Doucet said, but she has sworn an oath and must save face.
Nearly 30 men have failed Turandot’s test when the opera opens. Then an exiled prince, Calàf, shows up and takes the challenge against the advice of virtually everyone in the kingdom; Doucet pointed out that even Turandot warns him not to tempt fate. The key to the love story, the director said, is that Calàf "makes her realize her own humanity" by putting his life in her hands after he beats her at her game.
"The basis of every relationship is trust, that’s what the opera tells us," Doucet said. "Dramatically, it is a fantastic opera. I know some people have different ideas, mostly because they’ve never looked at the text. Bad habits become tradition." The director believes that in a successful production, Turandot’s transformation won’t come as a surprise. The score and libretto offer clues all along.
Maida Hundeling, the German soprano who will sing the title role in Utah Opera’s production, agreed that the story’s resolution shouldn’t seem contrived. "My opinion is that [Turandot] knows in the first act" that there’s something special about Calàf, Hundeling said. She doesn’t want him to be killed, but she doesn’t see another way out. When he turns the tables on her, "he is making an offer for her to develop."
Tenor Jonathan Burton, who plays Calàf, believes his character sees himself as a knight in shining armor.
"He feels a spiritual calling to convert Turandot," he said. "She could be wonderful. She is powerful and could be a great blessing to her people. He seeks to turn her into that."
Part of the "Turandot" puzzle arises from the fact that the composer died before finishing the score. In a legendary moment at the opera’s 1926 world premiere, conductor Arturo Toscanini set down his baton and stopped the music at the point where Puccini had stopped composing. Since then, it’s been standard practice to include a final scene composed by Franco Alfano from Puccini’s notes and sketches.
"The throat feels different immediately," Burton said of the final scene. But the scene is dramatically necessary, said Doucet: "For me, to make cuts is pure nonsense."
Utah Opera artistic director Christopher McBeth explained that his company shared the expenses of this show with the opera companies of Pittsburgh, Seattle and Minnesota — a common practice in today’s opera world that allows regional companies to mount grander productions than they might be able to afford on their own. Critics have described the Barbe-Doucet production as "miraculous," "sumptuous" and "stunning" in the cities where this "Turandot" has played so far.
Doucet said his and Barbe’s aim was for the characters’ humanity to shine through, but he also hopes to entertain audiences with a "spectacular showcase of grand opera."
"It’s not something you see every day on the opera stage," he said.
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