Sunday, I listened to Puccini's Turandot by the Houston Grand Opera on NPR. I wanted to find out how tenor Vladimir Galouzine fared with the famous aria "Nessun Dorma". This powerful song is Luciano Pavarotti's signature aria, so if you've ever heard a Three Tenors concert, you've heard him sing this.
I guess Turandot is a love story of sorts. You'll have to decide for yourself. The aria is the only thing, aside from the bloody plot, that stands out in Turandot, at least for me. There are a lot of arias, and soprano Jennifer Wilson as Turandot has a lovely voice, but this opera means Nessun Dorma to me.
The plot is strictly fable and fairy tale, but throughout, the thought runs through my head "why would anyone want the monster that is Turandot?" Well, because she's breathtakingly beautiful, that's why, nevermind that she's also breathtakingly cruel.
The setting is long-ago China. Turandot is the lovely princess whose hand is sought by many. In order to avoid having to get married, she insists that her suitors answer three questions, or forfeit their lives. In the beginning of the opera, the Prince of Persia is about to lose his head. He bears himself with such dignity that the crowd begs Turandot to spare him. She contemptuously ignores them and has him beheaded. Turandot's hands may be bloodstained, but at least it's a good bet she's still a virgin.
This should serve as a warning to young Calaf, a Tartar prince-in-disguise who is watching from the crowd. As the crowd shuffles, a man is almost trampled, and Calaf goes to his aid, only to discover that that man is his long lost father, attended by the slave girl, Liu, who is secretly in love with Calaf.
Got that? Good. It gets better.
Despite the evidence that Turandot has the heart and morals of a female praying mantis, Calaf rings the gong that proclaims him her next suitor.
In the second act, Calaf is put to the test. Turandot asks him:
"What is born each night and dies at dawn?" "Hope," he answers.
"What flickers red and warm like a flame, yet is not fire?" "Blood," he answers.
"What is like ice, yet burns?"
"Turandot" he replies, correctly.
Turandot does not know what to make of this. None of her hundreds of suitors has answered the questions correctly, and she does not have the presence of mind to pretend that he missed any of them. She turns to Daddy to get her out of this pickle, but Calaf intercedes to help her.
He says that if she can guess his name by daybreak, he will not only not hold her to her pledge, but will sacrifice his own life.
This is the loophole she has been looking for. Turandot keeps all of Beijing up all night (on pain of death, of course)until she finds the name of her suitor. At this point, Calaf sings Nessun Dorma (noone sleeps). In addition, she has the only people who were seen with Calaf, his father and the slave Liu, tortured. Liu steps forward and says that only she knows the stranger's identy, and is subjected to unspeakable torture. When Turandot asks the secret of her unshakable strength, she answers "love". Finally, afraid that Calaf will step forward to save her (not likely...he stood by for a lot up to that point), she grabs a dagger and kills herself.
Somehow, Calaf and Turandot are left alone, and he forces her to kiss him, melting her cold, cold heart. Feeling the power of love for the first time, she becomes his, and when she addresses the crowd to announce his name, she tells them that it is "Love."
Tenor Vladimir Galouzine has a wonderful voice, but for me, no one compares with Luciano Pavarotti in Nessun Dorma. Unfortunately, his career in on hiatus, probably permanently. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2006, and his energy will probably all go to fighting a villain greater than any he ever encountered in his operatic career. Hopefully when it's over, he can still sing "Vincero!"