My father’s mother was an emotional woman. My most vivid memory of her was enthroned on the sofa, propped up by cushions and Pekinese dogs, with a delicate handkerchief in one hand – her lower lip trembling. My grandmother was a well built woman, and the fragile handkerchief was completely inadequate for her size as well as for the depth of her emotions.
What made her mouth tremble the most, and tears swell in her eyes? Puccini’s last opera, the magnificent “Turandot,” played on the 1960s “stereogram” (young people would not, of course, be familiar with this wondrous piece of technology, which took up a large portion of my grandmother’s sitting room). My brother and I would watch her with a mix of apprehension and amusement, as the familiar triggers in the opera arrived, inevitably, one by one. One of these was the faithful and pious slave girl Liu’s plaintive aria before she stabbed herself. The other was, naturally, Calàf’s aria “Nessun Dorma,” during the sleepy night scene at the beginning of the final act. Now if you don’t know this, look it up. Even non-opera fans know it – it’s almost a pop song. Luciano Pavarotti, that rockstar opera star, sang it at the 1990 FIFA World Cup. Aretha Franklin did a soulful version.
For me, “Nessun Dorma” (sung in a rather workmanlike way on this occasion) was not at all the highlight of the Metropolitan Opera of New York’s revival of a Franco Zefirelli production – aired live by the wonders of satellite technology in an (eighty per cent empty) Carib 5 cinema. Clutching a sickly sweet cup of Nestlé from the coffee machine, I was overwhelmed by the performance of the Swedish soprano Nina Stemme in the title role. “Powerful” is an overused word in this context – and inadequate. We were caught up in layer upon layer of sound. My husband threw his head back against the seat. I clutched my coffee, gulped it down and squeezed the arm rests and the cardboard cup, alternately. I spent the rest of the opera tilted over at an angle onto the next seat (empty), finding it easier to absorb the performance that way. What a voice.
Now, Turandot is a fairy tale about a Chinese princess, the Emperor’s daughter. She sends beautiful princes seeking her hand in marriage to their deaths, because they cannot solve the riddles she tells them. She is a vengeful figure, and we all know revenge is a dish best served cold. Twisting her long sleeves back and forth with sharp motions in In Questa Reggia” (“In This Palace”) she tells of the rape and murder of another princess, her ancestor. Everything revolves around Turandot. We are almost fearful of her appearance in Act 2, and when she does arrive we feel the psychological weight of her presence (and also her physicality – I never imagined her as a slight figure).
Turandot is no shrinking wallflower.
I have always felt uncomfortable about the point in the final act when Turandot just… gives in. She is “conquered” by love (although it seems more like lust, to me, and it appears that when she is still reluctant – she really doesn’t want a man – Calàf simply forces himself on her). There is a moment when Ms. Stemme suggests that Turandot is less than happy with this turn of events. But it’s a relief to all that no more heads on sticks are going to appear on the horizon – twenty-something beautiful princes beheaded, at the last count. Enough is enough.
So, as usual in opera, one doesn’t examine the niceties of the plot too closely; there are hints of stuff that are far from “politically correct” in our modern age. However, when swept up in Zefirelli’s sensuous production, it’s all too easy to forget. There are imperial guardsmen with red, grinning masks; silk-fringed parasols; graceful dancers with pink, slanting eyes; cold white masks and multi-colored, tasseled headdresses; swirling scarves and acrobats; fans snapping open and shut; magnificent, heavy robes with long sleeves and shoes with turned-up toes. There is a huge sword (for the execution); a gong (to summon the Princess); gilded columns and lanterns of scarlet and green. The production is so rich and complex I found myself watching different areas of the stage at different times, where little vignettes were played out.The choreographer, Chiang Ching, is seventy years old today and was interviewed during an intermission.The choreography – all the movement – of the chorus and other parts was almost hypnotic – especially the use of hand movements, gesturing, uplifting, folding.
When my grandmother was especially moved, she would reach out and grab my hand. Sitting in the Carib cinema on a cloudy tropical afternoon, I could almost feel her hand, with her heavy rings, trembling in mine.
She was loving every minute of it.
Postscript: Opera is the complete artistic package: music (orchestral and song), acting, choreography, design. I would like to suggest to the Jamaican cinema company Palace Amusement that it seriously considers in the future inviting students of drama, music, theater, dance and design (say from the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts) to attend these remarkable live performances, which are of the highest levels of quality and professionalism. They are not simply a film of a performance; in the intermissions you see the stage sets being moved, stage managers at work, interviews with producers, wardrobe people etc. – all the “behind the scenes” happenings. It is much more than just a show. Students could learn so much – and, importantly, become inspired. Rather than have a Carib 5 with say thirty members of the audience – as there were today – why not offer half-price or even free seats to students? I am sure they would benefit.