Two nights ago at Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center for the Performing Arts, I saw Puccini’s 1926 opera Turandot for the first time. I’d previously seen and liked his operas La bohème and Tosca, but this one–his final one, left unfinished due to his death–ranked above them, at least in this production. I liked the melodies, the forceful performances, the detailed sets, the ornate costumes, and the eye-popping color. Also, having Chinese characters sing in Italian epitomizes proto-multiculturalism.
However, I found certain aspects of the plot questionable. Because someone had raped and murdered her female ancestor centuries earlier, the virginal Princess Turandot has vowed that no man will ever get freak-kay with her. She poses three riddles to each suitor who approaches her, and has him decapitated when he doesn’t answer them all correctly; within three years, twenty-six men have literally lost their heads in public executions attended by the entire kingdom (and I mean entire kingdom; unlike some sparsely-cast operas I’ve seen at the Benedum, at least this one doesn’t stint on the background extras or on a massive fake moon). Yes, lots of guys have always found nasty gals arousing, but even the lustiest sucker would at least think for a moment before approaching such a brutal, bloodthirsty woman.
Eventually, her latest suitor, an unnamed prince, answers the three riddles correctly, then announces that he will forfeit his life if Turandot can guess his identity by morning. To discover the prince’s identity and thus prevent him from burying the Little Prince inside her royal vault, she has a comic-relief character torture the prince’s slave girl onstage (a plot development not especially amusing today, considering America still has a massive, post-9/11 torture-boner).
Anyway, in an ending written by someone else (but that Puccini might have approved of, considering the era’s gender-related brainwashing), the prince overpowers Turandot and turns her into a passive, lovestruck girly-girl. The moral: keep dames in their place, hardly an unknown moral in Puccini’s time or in any other time. Another, possible moral: women can justify their existence by behaving as savagely as men. Also: single women can destroy society. If both sexes had equally ruled the cultural sphere for centuries, this opera might have turned out differently, though I suppose few opera fans expect enlightened sexual politics–or enlightened politics in general (representative democracy rules!)–from such a genre prone to excess and camp.
April 1-2, 2017 (revised April 10, 2017)
Copyright © 2017 by David V. Matthews