I’ve seen a number of operas in my life, but I’ve listened to far more on CD or digitally. This is the first time, that I can recall that I have seen an opera I’ve listened to much ahead of time or at least, one I’ve listened to as many times as Turandot. So this was a new experience for me, being very familiar with the music. (The only thing I can compare it to in terms of musical familiarity is the second time I saw The Book of Mormon.)
First of all, a note: I have pronounced this opera incorrectly for over a decade. Somebody said it the wrong way, or I just read it as if it was French, I don’t know. Anyway, despite listening to people sing “Turandot” for years, I never paid attention to the lyrics – I don’t when I listen to opera – so I always pronounced it Turandoh. Imagine my confusion this morning at brunch when our friends kept calling it Turandot (as they had already seen this production). Anyway, now I know. I will have a hard time pronouncing it properly, though.
This is an extremely expressionist and minimalist production, thought may seem contradictory. We were warned of this by our friends at brunch this morning, so I don’t know if that helped. The production is expressionist – i.e. not literal – in the sense of the way the character are made up – as if they were in Vaudeville or silent film – and in the way they (don’t) interact with each other. It is minimalist because there are basically no sets, and there are few props beyond some swords, a severed head, and a piece of jewelry. It’s radically different, I assume, than traditional performances of the opera, and it bothered our friends when they saw us, and bothered someone sitting near us so much he said he would never see another opera by this director.
But we both felt differently, though it took me a little bit to warm up to it. The costumes were striking, the entry of Turandot was always dramatic, and they avoided some of the many problems staging such a racist and sexist opera in 2019 inevitably brings up. It wasn’t a production that helps you understand the plot, but we have surtitles for that.
Because I listen to the opera without knowing the lyrics, I forgot how regressive this thing is. Its most racist elements have been minimized as much as possible, but the sexism was much harder to control. (Though one thing about the staging is that it seemed intentionally designed to try to minimize it as much as possible.) All opera – or at least the vast majority of opera, especially opera written before, oh I don’t know, the 21st century – is pretty bad in terms of its treatment of everyone other than European men, and I have avoided having to deal with this by not bothering to pay attention to the lyrics of the non-English operas I enjoy. (Also, opera plots are dumb. That’s a given. If you like opera, you listen to it for the music, right?)
But this production has at least tried to avoid the completely incorrect ideas about China, and some of ideas about women. The lyrics are the lyrics, but the names of three characters have been changed and Turandot is much more ambivalent on stage than the lyrics suggest.
For me, the really great thing was hearing this bombastic music in a live setting. It is just so much more dramatic when you are in the same room as the singers and the orchestra, especially for the choral parts.
One annoying thing was the reaction of the crowd to “Nessun dorma”. If you don’t know it, this is one of the most famous “big tunes” in opera, and Pavarotti singing it live can be found on virtually every “Opera Greatest Hits” compilation in existence. (Insert snobby eye roll here.) Before the performer had even finished the piece, people were shouting and part of the crowd burst into applause. They only applauded during an act one other time. It is the most famous part of the opera but it isn’t necessarily the most impressive. And it’s annoying when you can’t hear it because people are like “Hey, I know this part! Hooray!”. As Jenn put it it’s a little like when people clap for the famous people during the Oscars “In Memoriam” but don’t clap for the people they don’t recognize. How do their families feel? Why do the other talented performers who have other pieces that show off their voices not deserve this applause? (I’d prefer everyone be quiet until the end of each act, but I’d prefer consistency to “This is the song I know!!!”)
Anyway, I mostly really enjoyed it and Jenn enjoyed the music a lot though she struggled with the plot which, I must admit, I had completely forgotten so didn’t factor that in when I dragged her to this. (I really didn’t remember it was so damn regressive. Remember men: if you pursue a woman hard enough she will absolutely love you eventually, no matter how insane your behaviour.)