Turandot was my first opera, forty-five years ago, in Rome. I saw a poster announcing that it would be performed at the Baths of Caracalla the day I arrived, and I found my way there. To this day, I vividly remember the open-air setting and the dramatic conclusion.
Last Saturday I saw the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD performance. Zeffirelli’s opulent setting, Yannick Nezet-Seguin’s imaginative directing, and a great cast made the performance equally memorable. Christine Goerke brings to the role of Turandot (as she did to Brunnhilde last year) a mixture of emotional intelligence and physical energy that I find charismatic.
Turandot has traditionally been considered a most unlikable character – vengeful, uncaring, and self-obsessed – and her falling in love at the end of the opera has been seen as inauthentic and implausible. From a contemporary perspective, however, Turandot’s character and behaviour are much more credible.
In the famous aria “in questa reggia,” Turandot explains her reason for scorning a legion of suitors and isolating herself with three unanswerable riddles. Her ancestor the Princess Lo-u-Ling was raped and murdered when Beijing was invaded, but Lo-u-Ling’s soul has been reborn in her. Thus, Turandot is avenging “that purity, that cry, and that death” and “the horror of her assassin is still vivid in my heart!” As a consequence, “no one [man] will ever possess me!” To me, Turandot’s rage is comparable to that of rape survivors in the MeToo movement and is not at all inexplicable.
By embodying the rage of a raped and murdered princess, Turandot has become, in contemporary terms, a disrupter. The opera tells us that in the three years Turandot has been posing riddles to suitors and condemning to death those who fail to answer them, she has had 26 suitors. They are, of course, nobility, and the opera names Persian, Indian, Samar, Burmese, Kirghiz, and Tatar princes who have been beheaded and whose heads have been displayed on poles in Beijing. Surely the slaughter of foreign princes is poisoning Beijing’s foreign relations.
The Emperor’s ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong opine that “everything was going along according to the world’s ancient law. Then Turandot was born …” They end their nostalgic discussion with the hope that soon a suitor will answer the riddles, and they imagine a day when “love has conquered and has given peace to China again.” The Emperor refers to the “ghastly oath that forces me to keep faith with the horrid pact” and profoundly regrets that “the holy scepter I clasp is steeped in blood!” He, too, wants an end to the disruption of normal palace life and of Beijing’s peaceful relations with its neighbours.
When Calaf, the unknown prince, answers Turandot’s three riddles correctly, her immediate response is to ask the Emperor to renege on his oath (“Don’t cast your daughter into the stranger’s arms.”) It is clear that the Emperor as well as the palace crowd want Turandot’s reign of terror to end and demand that she honour the oath. But Calaf’s desire to have her come to him out of love, rather than being forced against her will, sets in motion a sequence of events that ultimately lead to that outcome.
I find the psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory of the human life cycle invaluable in interpreting both Turandot’s resistance to Calaf and her eventual surrender. For Erikson, the developmental challenge of young adulthood is intimacy versus isolation. Turandot has chosen isolation for what, in the light of the MeToo movement, are understandable ideological reasons. But Erikson suggests that everyone harbours within herself or himself leanings towards both sides of the dichotomy, and that the choice of isolation is not an immutable life sentence.
Turandot admits this deep ambivalence in her feelings towards Calaf: “How many [other suitors] I’ve seen die for me! And I scorned them, but you, I feared! In your eyes there was the light of heroes! In your eyes there was haughty certainty … And for that I hated you .. And I loved you for that, tormented and torn between two equal fears: to defeat you or be defeated.”
Turandot is ultimately persuaded, both by the tragic self-sacrifice of Turandot’s servant Liu – a statement of the power of love – and by the fierceness of Calaf’s passion, expressed when, in the libretto’s description, “Calaf, filled with the sense of his right and with his passion, seizes Turandot in his arms and kisses her in a frenzy.”
Reading this from a MeToo perspective, the obvious question is whether Calaf has inappropriately forced himself upon her. But surely the answer must be no , as Calaf has of his own volition told Turandot his name, and thereby given her the power to condemn him to death. She overcomes her ambivalence, and chooses to affirm her love for him over her continuing isolation and his death. (“Love at first sight” is an operatic convention, as was Calaf’s for her, so her hesitancy, expressed in operatic time, is a reasonable depiction of ambivalence).
So the opera ends with the crowd singing “Love … Love is the light of the world! … Glory to you!” But I’ll give the last word to Christine Goerke. Asked if she thought Calaf and Turandot would live happily ever after, she replied, “Yes, with a lot of therapy.”