Robert Wilson and Turandot

I’ve been reading a bit about Robert Wilson in anticipation of the new Canadian Opera Company Turandot that is to launch the 2019-2020 season at the Four Seasons Centre, a co-production with Teatro Real & Lithuanian National Opera. Online pictures (for example this link) from the previous incarnations in Madrid and Vilnius give us a good idea of what to expect, especially considering how much has been written about Wilson’s style.

Wilson is called “a towering figure in the world of experimental theater” on the COC page announcing & promoting the production. He’s been a famous director for such a long time that he likely was already famous before most in the current opera’s cast were even born.

His work has been seen here before.

  • In 2012 Einstein on the Beach, a work premiered in 1976 (43 years ago), came to Toronto as part of a world tour. At the time I wrote about its influence, a seminal piece talked about far out of proportion to the actual number of people who had seen it. I posted a picture while saying
    “I can’t help noticing an echo of Wilson in Robert Lepage’s designs (the compartments of the space-ship scene replicated in Lepage‘s Damnation de Faust, even as Wilson himself paid homage in that scene to Lang’s Metropolis).


    Wilson echoes Lang. (Photo: Charles Erickson 1992)

    • In 2008 another tour brought us The Black Rider (The Casting of the Magic Bullets).
    • In the 1990s Wilson gave a talk in a lecture theatre packed with drama students at the University of Toronto.

The phrase from that talk that still sticks in my head from his lecture, in his bland lecturer voice was “the stage picture”. There were slides showing us how Wilson treated the proscenium arch theatre as a kind of viewer window that he divided quite decisively in his sketchbook, such that we would see certain things to the left or right, as though the actors and the lighting were all nothing more than parts of a flat picture, parts of a strategy to create a particular kind of image. I am reminded of the painter Maurice Denis (whose operatic connection btw is that he painted the cover of the program for the 1893 premiere performance of Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande) who famously said
Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a female nude or some sort of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors
I can’t help thinking of that when looking at a dramatist showing us pictures of a stage picture, that might be 3-D but is presented to us as a flat picture. Is Wilson’s work the logical mirror image to Denis (the symbolist seeking something transcendental in his work, at least in the 1880s & 90s)?

And Wilson showed little or no concern for what anyone was saying or thinking onstage, no Stanislavskian worries about motivation let alone transcendence. They might move but it was a physical correlative to the mechanical actions we find in Sam Shepard’s play Action or the redundant repetitive texts in the Songs from Liquid Days, words that go so well with the noodling but un-motivated eighth note ostinato in a Philip Glass composition (such as the aforementioned Songs). I was reminded of Edward Gordon Craig & his fascination with puppets and the über-marionette”. Where Craig saw the puppet as a means to a representative end, the ideal vehicle in the presentation of a Wagner opera, what if you strip away all that heavy fraught symbolist baggage and simply let the puppets move or be still? If you can have dance qua dance, movement for the joy of movement without the weight of meaning & storytelling: why not puppets or über-marionettes for the pure exploration & joy of the puppet & its movement of stillness..?

And yet as I look at the pictures from the Madrid & Vilnius productions of Wilson’s take on Puccini’s opera, I want to come at this from a different direction. Let’s back up for a moment and look at Turandot, recalling for a moment two previous productions brought to Toronto by Alexander Neef.


Alexander Neef (Photo: Gaetz Photography)

I’ve been thinking about Wajdi Mouawad’s Abduction from the Seraglio (who interrogates the Mozart Singspiel as a site of what the director might call “caricature or casual racism” ) and Peter Hinton’s Louis Riel (an opera originally conceived as a site for a kind of struggle between French and English, while the Indigenous part of Canada –arguably the key to Riel—was disrespected, both in the appropriation of a song used without permission, and its politics) a pair of redemption projects arguably rescuing operas from their own problematic politics.

Is there any need to save Turandot from itself? (which shouldn’t be confused with Calaf’s project to save the princess from herself and her murderous project of revenge upon males).

You may laugh at the thought that there’s anything especially problematic in Turandot. It’s funny to me recalling my favorite DVD version, in which Eva Marton gives a wonderfully sympathetic account of the princess’s grudge against the male gender, especially the one long ago who raped one of her ancestors, as we watch Placido Domingo of all people portray the prince Calaf, a prince claiming to be different. Do you want to #standbydomingo ?

Not me.

But there is a big gaping problem in the construction of Turandot, an opera Puccini was not able to finish before his death in 1924

In its first performance in 1926 the ending was left open, unfinished. Like the opera itself, which has been completed by at least two composers, there are multiple versions of what happened. It is agreed that the opera stopped partway through the 3rd act, that Toscanini turned to the audience to speak, after which the curtain descended.
1. One reporter present at the occasion quoted Toscanini saying
“Qui finisce l’opera, perché a questo punto il maestro è morto”
(“Here the opera ends, because at this point the maestro died”).
2. Another reporter quoted the conductor saying
“Qui finisce l’opera, rimasta incompiuta per la morte del povero Puccini”
(“Here the opera ends, left incomplete by the death of poor Puccini.”)
3. The version I heard has Toscanini say “Here the Maestro laid down his pen”, which is certainly romantic even if it maybe be nothing more than a loose paraphrase from the two eye-witnesses.

Yes Puccini left pages of sketches with Toscanini, begging him not to let his Turandot die. But it’s not that simple. At the point where Puccini left off composition the slave-girl Liu had died, sacrificing herself to save Calaf’s life. Meanwhile with no Liu left onstage I find I rarely believe in the ending:

  • Because Turandot is heartless, largely responsible for Liu’s death
  • Because the scene where Calaf is left alone with Turandot—using Puccini’s sketches but finished by someone else—feels inauthentic and weak compared to what has come before
  • …as I wonder: are we meant to like or admire Turandot? to like or admire Calaf?
    Do we care about this royal couple?

Why couldn’t Puccini finish it? Of course his health was part of it. But it’s intriguing to notice parallels between life & art. Puccini’s wife accused her husband of having an affair with a servant girl: and the servant committed suicide. Is this not a curious parallel to what we see in the plot of the opera? And how interesting that Puccini was trapped, becalmed in the waters of Liu’s suicide, unable to bring the good ship Turandot into port. Death meant that other composers faced the task of persuading us that Calaf & Turandot belong together at the end.  Did Puccini even believe in the ending of the story or was he stuck? I wonder about his motivation in setting this opera, which may have been a kind of mirror, even a veiled confession.

It’s a funny thing that when I was young Turandot was my favorite opera. I knew it through the RCA recording conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, with Birgit Nilsson, Jussi Björling, Renata Tebaldi, Giorgio Tozzi & Mario Sereni. I knew nothing of problems in the dramaturgy, because for me at this time opera was all about singers hitting high notes, music rather than theatre. I knew opera as a series of arias and set-pieces.

I had not yet discovered Wagner & Gesamtkunstwerk, the ideal you and I embrace in our modern world without properly appreciating its origin. The unified behaviour of your phone is employing the same dramaturgy seen for the first time in the middle of the 19th century. Dramaturgy on a phone? But it’s what all devices do now when they’re sending you a message. Your car may tell a little story, depending on whether you’re being warned of danger or reminded to fill your gas tank. Machines don’t communicate with irony or humor, but with a total unity between the machine and the functions and/or sites we visit. When it works the music is happy to tell me of success, beeping when it’s done or playing a happy little tune. When something is dangerous or prohibited the machine tells me so. That’s something invented in the 1850s for the first time when Donner the god of thunder called up a storm in the last half hour of Das Rheingold: by wielding his hammer. The moment when he strikes, there is a magical event, both in the story and the history of theatre. For the first time there was an instruction in the score where all elements of the mise-en-scène and the text (both the words & the music)  function in complete precise synchronization. We hear the lightning & the ensuing thunder-clap, AND we see the flash as requested in the score. Gesamtkunstwerk is often translated as “total art work”, with the expectation that all of the components work together towards a unified goal.

And so by the time we get to Puccini, he’s doing it too. He’s mickey-mousing

  • to tell us when Rodolfo is sprinkling water on Mimi’s face (to make one smile or even giggle),
  • to show us Angelotti desperately searching for the basket in the first moments of Tosca (to make one feel his indecision & terror, and finally relief when he finds it)
  • giving us the sounds of the cannon fire in Nagasaki harbour in Butterfly’s imagination, during “un bel di” (to make one teary-eyed):
    …right in his orchestral score. It’s Wagnerian, that idea of unity, with the orchestra functioning like a wordless Greek chorus whispering non-verbal messages to inform us of important information that isn’t conveyed in words.

In Puccini one sometimes encounters the dilemma the composer must have faced, between those two impulses:

  • numbers or through-composed
  • arias with climaxes vs something continuous
  • opportunities for singers to show off (aka arias) vs the showcase for composer & librettist

Who do you go to see/hear when you go to the opera, or indeed any play or film? Is it the story or the star? Is it a singer or a song? In Puccini that conversation is especially intriguing, the famous tunes embedded in scenes without the full-stop one usually gets in opera. “Nessun dorma” may get applause but the music is written to go on at the end: unless the conductor holds the orchestra back in expectation of an explosion of appreciation from the audience.

My favourite scene of the opera as a child was one that’s often shortened, phrases cut mercilessly: namely the scene between Ping, Pang & Pong that opens Act II.

Oddly it seems apt for 2019, the powerless observers dreaming of something better while feeling powerless. It reminds me of a Globe & Mail editorial I saw a few days ago. Is there so much difference between what Ping Pang & Pong observe in China (dealing with Turandot’s daddy the Emperor) in the opera, or what the Globe would observe about Brexit & Boris Johnson?

In the opera there are at least three different textures musically, corresponding to something in the story, interconnected like solid plates or quilts sewn into one fabric

  • The heartless chorus and the implacable Mandarin in whole-tone harmonies
  • The romantic leads in melodies that are often pentatonic (recalling how pentatonic Puccini can get even in other operas with no connection to the far east such as Tosca)
  • Ping, Pang & Pong in the discursive space between the two extremes. When we’re in whole-tone mode things are dark if not nihilistic & brutal, while the melodic space is a sentimental and diatonic place where happy endings at least dreamt of, even if they are impossible. This includes some choral moments such as the boys who sing Turandot’s leit-motiv: which articulates the dream of reconciliation between male & female.

Là, sui monti dell’est,
la cicogna cantò.
Ma l’april non rifiorì,
ma la neve non sgelò.
Dal deserto al mar
non odi tu mille voci
sospirar: “Principessa,
scendi a me!
Tutto fiorirà,
tutto splenderà! Ah!…”

There, on the Eastern mountains,
the stork sang.
But April blossomed no more,
and the snow didn’t thaw.
From the desert to the sea,
can’t you hear a thousand voices
sighing: “Princess,
come down to me!
All will blossom again,
all will be resplendent! Ah!…”

Zeffirelli cast the boys in Buddhist attire in his production, but this is not a Buddhist idea, this attachment to desire. It’s funny how this tune
made me cry (Tutto fiorirà)
before I even understood what it meant (tutto splenderà!),
before I understood desire (Ah!…”).

Do we make a mistake with Turandot in expecting it to work the way other Puccini operas have worked? Where Boheme , Tosca and Butterfly all build up to a catharsis summation on the last page, where there is a combination of the powerful melodramatic action typical of verismo, complete with the orchestra taking over for that final summation–in a Wagnerian approach to story-telling– Turandot perhaps needs to be thought of in other terms. Where those three operas have closure & catharsis on the last page, maybe we should think of Turandot as closed at the moment when “the maestro put down his pen”. While Liu has made her sacrifice and that once savage chorus are now contrite, fearful in asking her spirit for forgiveness, Calaf & Turandot are still glaring at one another across a physical & discursive gulf. While Puccini may have given us his last word at the moment he stopped, that the servant gave her life for love, even so: the story is not concluded and therefore must be thought of as open.

Enter Robert Wilson, who could be on the cover of Umberto Eco’s The Open Work, because of his tendencies coming at theatre & signification.

I see in a review by Polina Lyapustina of the Lithuanian production from earlier this year, she says that
“It seems that the director was not convinced by the dramatic denouement of the work and he seemingly made no attempt to create it.”

Could that be another way of saying that Wilson chose to show us the characters as they’re written, reflecting the open ending Puccini has written? Maybe Wilson dares to offer us an older kind of opera, where we get spectacle, music, singing but without insisting on the total work, and instead offering ambiguity & ambivalence. Instead of the total artwork we get an open work. I can’t help placing this in context with Alexander Neef’s previous redemption projects: Wajdi Mouawad aiming to redeem Abduction from the Seraglio, or Peter Hinton re-thinking Louis Riel. Instead of the usual struggle to make the ending of the unfinished opera work, perhaps Neef saw the match between Wilson, who leaves works open, and Turandot a work that is arguably unfinished even with the endings created by other composers such as Alfano (whose ending is to be used in this production).   Its conclusion is in some respects an oxymoron, a happy ending in spite of everything Turandot tells us she stands for, in spite of Puccini’s attempt to persuade us that Liu should have Calaf. Should Turandot and Calaf end up together or should the ultra-feminist resist Calaf’s attempted seduction? I’m dying to see how it looks and whether it works.  Of course it was likely Wilson’s idea to take on the opera, but at least Neef had the good sense to bring it to Toronto.

Does it work? Or does my younger self still win out, in my former desire for the happy ending? We shall see.  I hope that it does work.

Of course this is my speculation without yet having seen the show. Robert Wilson’s Turandot opens at the Four Seasons Centre on September 28th, presented by the Canadian Opera Company.

Turandot 5513 resized

Irene Theorin as Turandot in Turandot (Teatro Real Madrid, 2018), photo: Javier del Real

This entry was posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Dance, theatre & musicals, Essays, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Robert Wilson and Turandot

  1. Pingback: Robert Wilson’s Turandot | barczablog

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