Musical highlight: a shiver-down-the-spine moment from Puccini's Turandot
From the magical, hypnotic opening to the highly charged finale, a closer look at the people of Peking’s ‘Perché tarde la luna’.
‘Nessun dorma’ must have a claim to be the most famous opera aria ever – thanks to a certain World Cup and the Three Tenors. No doubt some of the millions encountered Turandot through ‘Nessun dorma’ then listened to more music from the opera. And there are other wonderfully smooth and tuneful solos in the opera, such as Liù’s ‘Signore ascolta’. However, it is just as much an opera of big crowds. They can have their lyrical moments too, and sometimes in the most unexpected places.
In Act I there is a beautiful number for the people of Peking, ‘Perché tarde la luna’. The sound sweeps the audience away into an exotic world suffused with a romantic musical glow. First the women and then the men sing a repeated note as the violins climb slowly higher and higher in long, sustained notes. Gradually short phrases emerge that float around, rising and falling, and then sustained. The volume pulses in waves, from soft to loud, then dying again, and between each little set of phrases there is a pause, as though the men and women are waiting for something to happen. The orchestra decorates this sumptuous vocal quality with a range of rising and falling phrases of their own: sliding strings, wafting woodwind, little punctuating points of percussion. The combination is strange, hypnotic and downright magical.
But there’s something darker lurking beneath. Eventually the musical elements coalesce into a single, loud repeated statement chanted by all the voices at the climax of the chorus. What the people of Peking are chanting at the end is ‘Pu-Tin-Pao’, the name of the executioner. (He is described in the stage directions as ‘enormous, gigantic, tragic… carrying his immense sword on his shoulder’). The crowd sing their suspenseful chorus as they keenly wait for the rising of the moon. When the moon rises it is time for the executioner to do his work, for another head to roll. The beautiful vision of the natural world in their words is related to a severed head, a lover of the dead. We can find the same verbal and musical imagery in Richard Strauss’s Salome – with another executioner and another severed head. Opera can be a bloody business!
This Turandot crowd are in thrall to an erotically charged bloodlust. What throws the chorus into even starker relief is what immediately follows. We hear the angelic voices of boy trebles singing a little processional tune that represents the beautiful and vengeful Princess Turandot – a genuine Chinese melody to suit the ancient Chinese setting of the opera. Temple gongs are heard lightly striking under their voices, and there is the steady intoning quality of a formal procession. It is mesmerizing and seductive and fades to nothing. They are accompanying the young Prince of Persia who has failed to answer correctly the three riddles posed by the Princess. The penalty for failure is death – so he is about to be beheaded by Pu-Tin-Pao. Gorgeous music, violent passions. It’s exactly the sort of shiver-down-the spine moment that opera does so well.
Turandot runs from 9 September 2013 – 10 March 2014, and will be screened live in cinemas on 17 September.
The production is staged with generous philanthropic support from The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.