The ice queen cometh
Turandot’s protagonist really is to die for
DESPITE its status as a staple of the operatic repertoire, the fame of Puccini’s Turandot has been eclipsed by its third-act showpiece, the tenor aria Nessun dorma.
The memorable melody became one of the biggest showstoppers in all opera after it became the theme song of the 1990 World Cup of soccer in Puccini’s Italian homeland. The concert on the eve of the final, which featured Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras sparring vocally on Nessun dorma, was seen by more than 800 million people. Ever since, it has been opera’s ubiquitous hit single.
The haunting excerpt has propelled Turandot into regular rotation at opera houses around the world, but it is not as beloved.
“The story is quite weird,” says Mlada Khudoley, the Russian-born soprano performing the title role in the Manitoba Opera revival of Turandot, opening tonight. “I don’t think I like anybody in this story. Maybe only Liù, because she is created to attract everyone’s sympathies.”
Puccini’s love-will-conquer-all story — first performed at La Scala in 1926 — focuses on a repellent ice princess so desirable that scores of men come from all over the world to vie for her hand. Detractors label it barbarous for the way Turandot treats them — she poses three riddles and beheads all who fail to answer them. When a smitten prince solves the riddles, he offers his life if she can guess his name before sunrise the following day.
“It’s a big, honking spectacle, but flawed because Puccini didn’t finish it,” says Cuban-born tenor Raúl Melo, making his Winnipeg debut as Prince Calaf. “It all makes sense to a certain point and suddenly she changes. The switch between her cruelty and the very happy ending is very abrupt. Everyone wishes Puccini had another year of life to figure how to make that transformation.”
With Turandot, Puccini’s mastery of orchestral sound reaches its pinnacle. It is said the glorious arias poured out of Puccini as if knew he was about to die.
“The music of Puccini goes first,” says Khudoley, when asked the source of the opera’s enduring appeal. “It’s so pleasant to hear. You don’t have to work hard. It just sticks in your brain.”
And first in the score is Nessun dorma, for which every Calif is severely judged. Melo will be singing it professionally for the third time, but it has been a personal party piece for much longer. The New Yorker once sang it on a dare at a Miami cigar bar and won a nice stogie.
“You either have it or you don’t,” says Melo, during an interview in his downtown hotel room
He’s referring to the spine-tingling final high notes, which are held longer than Puccini wrote them in the score.
“So if you can’t do that, you can’t sing the aria now. If you try to sing it as its written, people will think, ‘He must have lost his high notes’ or ‘He’s lost his voice.’ We’re measured by one note, basically,” Melo says.
Khudoley calls Turandot a total fairy tale, in which she portrays a beauty whose face is literally to die for. The vocal powerhouse says it’s not important how the performers onstage look, but how they well they sing. The graduate of the Russian Academy of Performing Arts doesn’t think her costumes — which are the same ones used in the last Manitoba Opera production of
Turandot in 1996 — do her any favours. “The dress itself is beautiful, but it is not the dress that is showing off my best traits of my figure,” she says. “I’m just like a hanger carrying this dress around. The dress is a big robe.”
Melo says that casting based on attractiveness would severely restrict the pool of candidates, as there are few 100-pound sopranos who have the voice and stamina to pull off a character like Turandot. He acknowledges that he might be a few years older than Calif is supposed to be.
“I’m less young than she is beautiful,” says Melo gallantly. “Her dress makes her look a lot chubbier than she actually is.
“Looks are important, but remember: it is fantasy time.”
Khudoley says if you don’t recognize from her playing Salome for the Manitoba Opera in 2011, check out her photos on the Internet.
“I would say only one thing: I’m am not responsible for that. Let my audience find me on Google and see how I am looking like in my common life,” says the singer who lives near Minneapolis with her American husband and daughter.
Melo suggests the pendulum in contemporary opera has swung too far, to where performers are cast for their physical appeal rather than their vocal attractiveness.
“There are actually some mediocre singers at the very highest levels because they look good. I’m not going to mention any names.”
Soprano Mlada Khudoley, right, as Turandot and tenor Raúl Melo (left and below left) as Prince Calaf.