Turandot and the culture industry

It is a little-known fact that when Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote in Dialektik der Aufklärung that “amusement always means putting things out of mind, forgetting suffering, even when it is on display… at its root is powerlessness,” they were thinking of Franco Zeffirelli’s Met Opera production of Turandot. Despite it being performed year in and year out, this Friday was the first time I have seen this ridiculously outsized spectacle, because I try to avoid things that I know will make me angry, afraid that I will be compelled to unleash the blogging equivalent of the Incredible Hulk. But on Friday to the Met I went, and it was just about as bad as I feared, if not worse.

Turandot’s China, as composed by Puccini, is a vast, cold machine, its people an anonymous mob and its princess ice. But who should appear but quasi-European Calàf, who manages to, like Don José, conquer the resistant feminine Other. (Think of Liù as Turandot’s Micaëla.) Zeffirelli’s vast stage machines, the sets massive and gratuitously detailed and crowded with scurrying extras, leave little space for human feeling and individuals. Perhaps Turandot’s realm is actually his ultimate achievement as a director. It fits the music in a way where his Traviata was merely ridiculous, but it exacerbates the problems of the score.

That Viennese Turandot where all the characters were insects was onto something–if you hang onto the Chinese setting, it’s hard to do so in a way that doesn’t feature a) awful cultural appropriation and b) the direct portrayal of the Chinese as soulless savages. If you don’t see what’s wrong with this I recommend you read this. And Zeffirelli’s kitsch is dire in this regard. I might add that the last scene, where Calàf comes pretty close to raping Turandot before she decides she wants it at the last second, makes me really unhappy. While I find ending the opera with Liù’s death (the point where Puccini’s score ends) overly abrupt, maybe it has more going for it than I realized when I saw that version in Munich last summer (that production that is not the last word in self-consciousness but in comparison to this one is positively enlightened).

Anyway, Zeffirelli’s theme park visuals still get applause, particularly the epic Act 2 set, but this is the sort of opera that I feel like I always need to apologize for: visuals that beat the viewer into submission, casual racism, and careless treatment of the characters and story. The Emperor and Turandot begin Act 2 so far upstage that they are rendered nearly inaudible, and it’s often hard to pick the leading characters out of the masses onstage. It has, when combined with the vivid banging of the score, an undeniable potency, but it’s not something I want anything to do with. The audience seemed to think they had gotten their money’s worth, but if you want to see something artistic I recommend redirecting yourself to Un ballo in maschera.

Musically this production was satisfactory, and in that respect I enjoyed it, though I wish the sets had not swallowed the singers’ voices as well as their presences. Conductor Dan Ettinger knows his Turandot–he conducted the Munich performance I saw last summer as well–and except for a few snafus with the chorus (and an unfortunate trumpet crack right before “Straniero, ascolta,”) the orchestra was strong. The vocal highlight was debuting soprano Janai Brugger as Liù. Granted, it’s easy for Liù to steal Turandot, but Brugger’s crystalline yet full lyric soprano was beautifully controlled and expressive, portraying a rare moment of vulnerability in this tank of a performance. Less happy was Marcello Giordani as Calàf. This incredibly uneven singer had a night that was more bad than good. While some high notes still can ring out with power and squillo, all but the top few notes are sour and hollow, and even a few notes sounded like yelps. As Turandot, Iréne Theorin had sufficient power (though the set wasn’t helping her), but I found this less impressive than her Brünnhilde last summer. Her vibrato seemed unwieldy and her tone often turned shrill. But she is a lovely actress in a role that is usually just stood through. James Morris was a horribly wobbly Timur, Dwayne Croft was a fine Ping but Tony Stevenson and Eduardo Valdes were unfortunately less than audible as Pang and Pong, as was Bernard Fitch as the Emperor. Ryan Speedo Green made an impressive Met debut in the small role of the Mandarin, a bass-baritone ringing out through the crowds.

But you’d have to pay me to go see this again.

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  1. I couldn't help but smile, recently re-reading Boulez's celebrated 1967 interview with 'Der Spiegel' – even though I don't think Henze in any sense deserves the comparison – and coming across this: 'Zeffirelli is the Henze amongst our directors.'

  2. I've actually found this to be one of the better Franco Zeffirelli's productions (just acts one and two, act three is a disaster) but I can still understand what you mean. This cast does look like a better Turandot cast than one usually sees at the met these days (I generally consider myself a fan of Theorin, though her vibrato in the middle can get distracting).

  3. Well I found it overwhelmingly satisfying in every single sense of the word. The orchestra got it right — plenty of drama and power. Janai Brugger as Liu got it right with a lovely and vulnerable quality to her voice which is very
    appealing to me and Giordani was on his best game. I am totally convinced that the airwaves hate him. He needs to be seen to be appreciated. His highs were so secure and nothing forcey. I haven't enough words of praise for Irene Theorin as Turandot (they all pronounce the "T" by the way) who really nailed it and her "in questa reggia" was spot on. This is one tough role and she got it right.

    The Zeffirelli staging was breathtaking and grandiose. Say what you will about the "over-the-topness" of his productions but he sure knows how to deliver pizzazz. (well maybe that red lace stuff in Trav I could definitely do without). A totally fulfilling night at the Met.

    Why Gelb is thinking of deep-sixing this production, I'll never know. The place was packed and the audience was actually raucous in its enthusiasm for this one.

  4. Hi, Zerbinetta. I've been a casual reader of your site for some time, and find your commentary to be consistently witty and erudite. I've noticed, however, that you seem especially sensitive to opera's depiction of ethnic minorities. First there was your (in my view, bizarre) insistence on the anti-Semitism of Robert Lepage's "Siegfried." And just recently, you singled out racial baggage in the Met's new "Tempest."

    Now, I can see what you're getting at with "Turandot" – but your ire is misplaced. You speak, for example, of "cultural appropriation." I don't think there's anything inherently insidious about using a few pentatonic melodies to suggest an "Asian" atmosphere, ham-handed as it may be. And I would argue that the elements of "Turandot" you find offensive – the "mindless" crowd scenes, touches of Gilbert & Sullivan in the scene with the ministers, the tacky chinoiserie of Zeffirelli's sets and costumes – are not, as you suggest, tainted products of cultural imperialism, but rather expressions of Puccini's dramatic élan. The man was, after all, a consummate showman, and saw it as imperative – especially as a so-called "veristic" composer – to provide such bursts of local color, which serve to draw the audience in, to contextualize the story, and, let's face it, are just plain fun. You can't deny that "Gira la cote" is damn catchy. I suppose you can criticize Puccini for hewing too close to stereotype, but he was a composer, not an anthropologist.

    There's no denying that opera is rife with ethnic stereotypes; it's one of the (many) conceits of the genre that must be accepted in order to be enjoyed. One of opera's shortcomings is that the constant pursuit of Big Emotion often leaves little room for the kind of subtle, novelistic characterization that could otherwise refine and humanize; hence the preponderance of "types": Hero, Villain, Lover, Sidekick, and so forth. And let's not forget that even Puccini, shortly before his death, expressed frustration with the story of "Turandot"; indeed, the characters are more archetypal and less sharply etched than those of his earlier masterworks.

    But I digress. It's a work I love, and it just seems silly and sanctimonious to get worked up over the particulars. I would love to get your thoughts.

    P.S. Speaking of racism, have you ever read Adorno's critiques of jazz? The man had more than his fair share of biases.

  5. #6, if you look up what I wrote about Lepage I never accused him of being anti-Semitic. I accused him of using *an image that often can be anti-Semitic* which thus should be avoided. I think you other points could similarly use a greater degree of nuance.

    And if you think the only thing going on in Turandot is some pentatonic scales, well, REALLY? If you think it's not a problem I suggest you start here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orientalism_%28book%29

    Also, the Adorno thing was a joke. I was going to put a footnote saying "don't believe everything you read on the Internet," but decided that would make it less funny. Alas, I should have.

  6. Anon #9, you seem perfectly capable of guiltlessly enjoying your privilege in the opera house. But at my blog I consider it my job examine it. Good riddance and I'm glad I bothered you.