Wednesday, May 20, 2009


I haven't been sleeping all that well lately, so I guess it was just as well that we had tickets to see Turandot last night. Almost any time we have see a three- or four-act Italian opera with two intermissions, I doze off during the first act. I should probably feel guilty about all the sleeping, especially since I don't pay for the tickets or even the parking, but I don't. There are occasions when I'm eager to go to the opera, but most of the time, I'm fulfilling a spousal obligation. Especially on a Tuesday night. Especially to see Turandot. Especially when the Washington Post reviewer said that everything was great about the production except for the singing and the orchestra.

She was right, too. The staging, the acting, and the set were all very good, and those factors combined to create a mostly compelling second act. Or at least it was good theater. Even if Turandot's (Maria Guleghina's) forceful voicing of the riddles was answered by a supposedly triumphant Calaf (Dario Volante) who could not be heard above the orchestra (and, no, they weren't too loud; or at least they weren't too loud for Turandot, Liu or Timur). B&c and I had the following conversation during the second intermission.
B&c: That was a lot better than the first act.
TED: I guess so. I didn't fall asleep. And, ok, it was very dramatic, but if I'm to judge by the relative strength of their voices, I just don't buy Calaf getting the better of Turandot.
B&c: Well, yeah, but her voice was a bit screechy, wasn't it?
TED: Yes, but that seems apt for the part. She's an ice princess, right? And a sort of strident proto-feminist. I can't imagine that Puccini liked her very much.
B&c: Yeah, but she has to have something going for her or why...
TED: Why would Calaf fall for her?
B&c: Yeah.
TED: Oh, dude. C'mon. You win her and you get ALL OF CHINA. You don't really think that he fell for her in just one look, do you? He's defeated, he's on the run, he's got nothing to lose, so he might as well take the test. He doesn't have a lot of options, really. And ALL OF CHINA is a big deal. Do you think those other twenty-one princes risked death because she's pretty?
B&c: Calm down.
TED: Why?
B&c: Well, we're in public, to start with.
TED: Oh, please. They all turn off their hearing aids when they leave the hall.

Things went quickly downhill after that. The tenor made such a mess of "Nessun Dorma" that when Turandot, shortly thereafter, was ranting around the stage demanding toknow his name, the only thing that kept me from yelling "His name's Calaf. Now kill him already!" was my extremely weak knowledge of Italian. Alas, we still had to watch Liu (Subina Cvilak, who sang beautifully) undergo enhanced interrogation techniques and then kill herself before Calaf and Turandot got down and dirty (eww) and things resolved themselves in an uncomfortable gush of hormones.

I don't understand why Puccini wanted to waste such beautiful music on such loathsome characters. You have to figure that they won't exactly end up like Donna Reed and, well, whoever Donna Reed's handsome TV husband was. Calaf had to use a little brain power and some sex appeal to get through Turandot's resolve, and he's likely to be repaid by having to spend time satisfying a sex-crazed shrew. Fortunately, they're royalty, so apart from some occasional drunken procreation and the odd state function, they can pretty much never see each other and satisfy their urges with Ping, Pang, and Pong, who, frankly, didn't seem to be getting any.

There were numerous times (again) in the third act where Calaf could barely be heard, and there were numerous times throughout the production where whoever is responsible for the supertitles decided that we should maybe just fill in the blanks ourselves. It was maddening. As we were leaving the theatre, I said to b&c, "That was weak. The supertitles kept leaving important stuff out, I couldn't hear the tenor half the time, and he cut off the final note of 'Nessun Dorma' at least two beats early." An attractive, tall gentleman who was descending the staircase at the same time, looked at me and said, "I agree entirely. Except it was probably three beats early."

I have to say that I have very mixed feelings about the impending slow death of opera as an art form. I've had a few splendid nights at the opera, but I more often than not leave feeling that the return didn't justify the investment of time and/or money. It's a very difficult art form to master, and it's the sort of thing that usually isn't pleasant unless it's extremely well done. There don't seem to be that many people who can do it extremely well these days. If you layer on top of all that the current economic climate, it's not surprising that so many companies are going under. And it's not clear that, in twenty years or so, anyone will be left to mourn them. These days, you very rarely see any children at the opera. Indeed, very few members of the audience are still of the age to have minor children, and those who are of that age aren't the breeding type.

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