One of my favourite operas – if not my actual favourite – is Turandot. Inspired by the Persian fairy tale Turan-Dokht, it was Giacomo Puccini’s swansong, left unfinished at his death and completed by Franco Alfano.
There is something profoundly different about Turandot – a kind of power that is absent from Puccini’s other works. Something absolute and overwhelming. Tosca grabs you by the gut, La Bohème captures your heart, but Turandot – at least for me – bewitches you, then capsizes you.
My mother had a 1959 recording, with Birgit Nilsson in the title role, Jussi Bjoerling as Calaf, and Renata Tebaldi as Liù Six heavy records in a square cardboard box with the picture of a fierce-looking, scary Chinese dragon on the cover. I do not know how this opera found its way onto our record shelf. I do not remember anyone else in the family ever listening to it, beside myself. I have a blurred memory of my mother sitting on the Persian rug, libretto spread open beside her, telling me, “… but Turandot says to her father, the Emperor of China, ‘I know the name of the Stranger. His name is Love.’”
I must have been nine or ten.
On many an afternoon, I would stack the records on our Phillips record player, and hold my breath in anticipation as the sapphire landed on the edge of the glossy black disc. No matter how many times I heard it, that solemn sweep of the opening notes and the subsequent rhythmic chords, never failed – and still never fails – to hit me right in the centre of my chest. A Mandarin reads out an edict to the people of Peking. Princess Turandot will marry the prince of royal blood who will solve the three riddles she sets him. However, should he fail, then, as the moon rises in the sky, his head will fall on the executioner’s block. And so exiled Prince Calaf, his blind father and their devoted slave girl, Liù, arrive in Peking to witness the execution of the hapless Prince of Persia, little more than a boy.
Turandot is the icy maiden, the embodiment of cruelty. She takes pleasure in shedding blood. Her beauty lures men to madness and death, since no one can solve her riddles. Although the opera concludes with a marriage and love triumphant, this is not a happy ending, for it comes at a heavy cost. To conquer Turandot, Prince Calaf loses his father’s love, and sees Liù make the ultimate sacrifice. As Turandot declares her love for Calaf, it is very difficult to believe in her sincerity. As my friend Sue says, “If I were Calaf, I’d have her killed straight after the wedding, before she has a chance to get me! You don’t seriously believe she can ever change, do you?”
Like my friend, I always felt the ending to be contrived. For one thing, I always disliked Calaf. He is so overwhelmed by Turandot’s beauty, that he becomes utterly selfish. He cares little for the wellbeing of his blind father, and fails to see true, selfless love in Liù. A man who will smash anything and anyone who stands in the way of his desire.
Blinded by love, Calaf strikes the baleful gong in the public square, announcing his intention to contend for the Princess’s hand. Even the old Emperor cannot dissuade him. Turandot appears, and sets the three riddles. Calaf puts fear in her heart from the start, because she sees in his eyes the glow of impending triumph, the hand of destiny. She knows that he sees her, through her. When he solves her riddles, she falls prey to panic, recants on her vow, and begs her father not to give her to the stranger. At this point, Calaf performs an act of generosity. He sets Turandot a riddle of his own. “Guess my name,” he says. “Guess it by sunrise, and I shall die.” And so the people of Peking are kept awake all night, whilst soldiers and guards search for the stranger’s name. His name, Turandot’s only hope of escape. Only Liù admits to knowing that name, but she takes the secret away with her to her death.
Yes, Turandot is cruel – but she has a backstory, which she tells us in her aria In questa reggia. A backstory that goes back generations, to gentle Princess Lo-u-Ling, who reigned in peace and joy until her kingdom was conquered in war. The invader then raped and murdered Lo-u-Ling, her terrified scream echoing through the land. It is Lo-u-Ling’s angry, humiliated soul that lives again in Turandot, and seeks revenge. Revenge, or a settling of accounts. Turandot/Lo-u-Ling cannot believe in love, since her memory is that of pain. And so, she sets love riddles, hurdles, and tests, unable to emerge from a past of horror until the lesson is learnt, and order restored. Only, this order can be restored with love, and not revenge. It is Calaf’s destiny to put a stop to this cycle of destruction and self-destruction, and begin a cycle of rebuilding, of nurturing and of creativity. Trapped in her pattern of distrust, Turandot is deeply afraid of change. In a way, Calaf’s love exorcises the demons that have kept her prisoner for centuries, and sets her free. Moreover, it is Liù that shows her what love is. As the slave girl is tortured, the princess asks, “What gives your heart so much strength?”
“Princess, ‘tis love,” replies Liù.
“Love?” echoes Turandot in the same musical phrase, in disbelief, for she does not know what it is. Love, in her memory, is nothing but pain and she is puzzled by what she sees in Liù.
As a romantic love story, Turandot is as flawed as it is unsatisfying. It does not add up. Look at it as a story of destiny, redemption, accounts settled and order restored, though, and it suddenly makes perfect sense. It is all in the libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni. Once you know that, you realise Puccini’s music has been telling you that all along.