As that title might lead you to guess, I've just been to see "Turandot" at the Royal Opera. It's one of my favourite operas, a fact I tend to conceal as it provokes confusion or outright anger - "How can you like that? - the story is horrible..." To which I can only say, are the stories of "Madama Butterfly" or "La Traviata" not horrible, then? "Traviata" is even (loosely) based on fact - now really that IS horrible. Poor bloody Marie Plessis.
I love "Turandot" firstly for the music, which I think is some of the most dazzling Puccini ever wrote, and secondly for, yes, that's right, the story. It's an allegory, for crying out loud; an allegory of the creative life. For those who aren't opera buffs, the overall line of the story is as follows: Princess Turandot, heir to the throne of China, will only marry the man who can answer her three riddles, and executes anyone who cannot; the Unknown Prince answers them, and commits himself totally to her, risking his life and turning away from those who love him and try to hold him back, even when they have to suffer because of his choice; he sets Turandot a riddle of his own, but after kissing her cannot resist telling her the answer; luckily for him, she decides to spare him because she is overcome by the depth of his love for her, and by her own emotions on being kissed for the first time; instead of announcing the answer to his riddle (his real name, Calaf), she tells the assembled court "Il suo nome é amor", and accepts him as her husband.
I've always seen this as an allegory of total commitment to the Muse, and the risks inherent in this. Calaf is initially repulsed and enraged by what Turandot requires, and what she does to people; by her power and her potency, her casual, emotionless cruelty, and her ability to ensnare and overwhelm. Then he sets eyes on her, and suddenly he knows that this, and only this, can make his life complete. She is the Muse, the power-from-within that will drive him to become what he is capable of being; she is the creative life force of the universe personified. To follow her, you must be blind to all else. But without her, to those who are capable of seeing her in the first place, life is only ever going to be a shadow. Those who are capable of seeing her are princes, potential kings; surely all this is allegorical? The other men in the story only ever see a powerful, destructive woman who they fear and would like to see cut down to size. The princes see something worth giving your life for.
The Unknown Prince forsakes his old, blind, exiled father, and the faithful slave girl who loves him, and rejects their pleas to forget what they say can only hurt them and destroy him. He makes a total commitment, even though it is to something everyone advises him against, and he abides faithfully in this commitment. He sees at first hand what the Muse can do; how much pain and destruction she can cause, how she will turn her back without a flicker of feeling on someone who has given themself to her, like the unfortunate Prince of Persia, and all his beheaded predecessors; and he still makes that same commitment, knowing all the risks. When, momentarily, he is in a position of dominance, he willingly gives it up, because he cannot resist giving himself utterly and in absolute trust to his love. He knows that only his love and his commitment can save him, and so he has to trust a force that has not yet ever shown itself worthy of trust, only of fear. He takes all these incredible risks; he sees his family suffer; he is offered, and refuses, both bribes and threats; and he doesn't give up. Finally he wins Turandot - and his beloved herself says to him "Please, go; you have made me love you - isn't enough to know you have won? - can you not just savour that victory and leave me in my solitude?" - and still, even then, faced with that seductively easy way out, still he doesn't give up.
That's how I see it, anyway. It simply isn't a story about real people making real decisions and happily condemning others to death or to a life of misery. It's about the absoluteness of commitment to your path in life.
And then I go to a production like this Royal Opera one, and discover how this fable can be made into a story about real people. I'm startled, but convinced; it was terrific. As a fusion of theatricality and human-interest, it was spot-on. The singers had been directed to adopt a slightly formalised movement, as if to undermine any possible sense that verismo was the goal. Stylised posture and gestures were tuned to the individual character, and costumes and make-up likewise, but then, within that framework, the performers were allowed natural acting; and, somehow, the characters began to seem far more real than if they had been played completely naturalistically. It was as if one were watching a whole society hooked on maintaining the perfect façade of courtly behaviour, but with their real natural feelings breaking through inescapably. The production looks magnificent, with light gleaming through fretwork window screens, and blood-red banners hanging. The Emperor Altoum is flown in from above on a golden throne, and Turandot makes her first entry carried shoulder high in a litter by masked servants, glacially statue-like and distant. The entire Chinese court wear either full or half-masks most of the time, and only Calaf and his family are allowed the fully human expressiveness of their own bare faces.
But the whole thing would stand or fall on the casting, and in this particular case this was brilliant. The Swedish soprano Irene Theorin was a stunning Turandot, with the capacity both to blow your socks off with "In Questa Reggia" (the operatic equivalent of dancing the Rose Adagio - come on and go straight into one of the most demanding pieces in the repertoire) and to melt into thrilling, floating pianissimi as her reserve gradually breaks down. She also looked good, which I'm afraid does help, given that this is supposed to be a staggeringly beautiful woman - the last Turandot I saw was built like a balloon and could barely manage to sit down at the impact of Calaf's kiss, whereas Ms Theorin swooned to the floor very convincingly. And within the icy façade and the stylised gestures, this was all-too credibly a woman utterly terrified of giving up her freedom from male domination, incredulous at meeting her equal at last.
I didn't really like the Liu at first; rather too effortful of voice, and with a lot of vibrato in between the soaring high notes. But she could act, and, again, this helps. Liu is an immensely sympathetic character but I've never seen quite this mixture of tenderness and steel. The moment when, with the merest flicker of expression, she let us know that she has realised the only way out for her is suicide was wrenching in its simplicity.
I've left the best till last. I had heard of the Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato, but had never seen him in action before. Now I am thinking "Oh my gods, when will I get to see this guy in action again?" I had booked expecting to see José Cura, who goodness knows is worth the trip, but he had gone down with the flu and was unable to sing. Enter Mr Armiliato; for me, a completely new discovery (though clearly not for the rest of the world - he has a lot of big rôles under his belt, but it seems he doesn't sing in the UK much). At first I thought he was holding back slightly; perhaps he hadn't quite got the feel of the House yet. But round about "A me il trionfo, a me l'Amore" (I bow gratefully to a considerably better authority than my own inaccurate ear on the question of which line it was!), he just started to open out and give it everything, and was suddenly riding this beautiful ringing voice out over the orchestra and really sounding like the hero Calaf needs to be. Acts two and three were simply stunning.
He's tall and presentable, and is the best kind of actor, ie subtle, totally natural and inward - no tubthumping, no trick-playing, no ham; and he has a splendid voice. Really gorgeous sound, with all the things I love; strength and colour and feeling, and a lovely bell-like clarity. Not Cura's blackened-bronze colour, but bright and golden, and with rich depths of tone; a hoppy, real-ale gold rather than a crisp lager-y one. And it is a pleasure always to hear someone sing as if they really understand and mean every word. "Nessun Dorma" can so easily be churned out on autopilot these days; but not with this guy. When one adds to the quality of his performance the fact that he was a stand-in, new to the production, with at most three or four days rehearsal; and he has only sung in the house once before... Yet he was totally integrated and committed to the production, and was certainly by miles the best Calaf I've seen. Damn it, I've got a new hero; goodness knows when I'll get another dose of his work, though...