Florentine Opera’s fairy-tale “Turandot”
Puccini died without completing Turandot, which the Florentine Opera will stage once again this weekend. But the death wasn’t sudden; Puccini had nearly two years at the end of his life to finish the opera, but just didn’t work it out.
Theories abound as to why. A plausible one holds that the fantastical story, of a bloodthirsty but alluring Chinese princess, was so far outside Puccini’s dramatic strike zone that he just couldn’t quite make contact. Puccini died in 1924, with the ending still in sketches. After much argument involving Puccini’s publisher and his son, Franco Alfano completed the opera (on the second try; publisher Ricordi rejected the first). Arturo Toscanini conducted the first performance on April 25, 1926; he insisted on bringing down the curtain on Puccini’s last note and did not go on to Alfano’s ending.
Lots of opera fans, including me, have problems with the dramaturgy of Turandot. Why on earth would the hero, Calaf, risk his life to wed a murderous princess when the loyal and lovely Liu is crazy about him? Who the heck is Turandot, anyway? Why doesn’t she sing a note until Act 2? Why does she change her mind about Calaf for no apparent reason?
“I struggled with that, too,” said director Eric Einhorn. “I looked at these characters and just couldn’t care about them. And they do these terrible things.
“But then I looked at it for what it is. It’s not verismo; it’s a fairy tale. When you think of it that way, you can forgive all the rest.”
To make his point clear to the audience, Einhorn has added a couple of mute characters to the endeavor. They’re reading from a book of fairy tales, and Turandot is their story for the evening. That makes sense, since the source for the story, first published in Europe in 1710, is an old Persian fairy tale possibly mingled with an ancient Mongol tale.
Soprano Lise Lindstrom will sing the title role for the Florentine and has sung it elsewhere many times. She’s all in with Einhorn.
“I’d always spent my time and energy trying to find ways to humanize Turandot,” Lindstrom said. “It’s tricky to do that, because it’s not really in the play. So I feel a great sense of liberty, because I don’t have to force the elephant through the keyhole.”
Generally, Turandot is a plant-and-sing role. During the interview, Florentine general director William Florescu put it this way: “I often feel that Turdandot is putting on a concert while everyone else is putting on an opera. When you accept the environment, you have more freedom to be real within the terms of that environment.” Better integration of Turandot into the atmosphere of the piece and its physical action is the goal for Einhorn and Lindstrom, too.
In Einhorn’s fairy-tale environment, in which everything is stylized, the main question for Lindstrom is not “What’s my motivation?” It’s “Am I fierce enough?”
“It’s very hard to find the Method acting in Puccini’s Turandot,” Lindstrom said.
The lush, extravagant set, rented from Atlanta Opera, helps establish the through-the-looking-glass world in which strange behavior seems normal. That would include inexplicably bursting into song.
“It’s subtle, and the audience might not pick it up,” Lindstrom said. “But I can feel it. The way you think about the character absolutely change the way you phrase, because now a different person is singing the phrase.”
Principal Cast and Credits
Stage Director, Eric Einhorn; Conductor, Joseph Rescigno; Princess Turandot, Lise Lindstrom; Calaf, Renzo Zulian; Liu, Rena Harms; Timur, Peter Volpe
Tickets and Information
Performances are Friday, Nov. 4, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 6, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets start at $30; call (414) 291-5700 or visit the Florentine website.