In Puccini's "Turandot" it is the Year of the Tiger at the Imperial Court in ancient Peking and the casualty count among Princess Turandot's aspirant suitors is 13 of 13.
It has been a bad year for visiting dignitaries at the old city, but a good one for the princess. As the curtain rises the prince of Persia is the latest to be headed to his execution as punishment for failing to solve the three riddles necessary for gaining Turandot's hand (it's an all-or-nothing world). So far as she is concerned, the more heads that roll the better (it all has to do with vengeance for an ancestor).
As the Imperial ministers Ping, Pang and Pong (it brings to mind table tennis) tell us, it was only six victims in the Year of the Mouse and just eight in the Year of the Dog. But this year the loyal vassals bemoan that they are reduced to being "mere Ministers of Execution" (public service can become pretty demoralizing in any country).
Do not mistake "Turandot," which will be shown at 8 tonight on Channel 26, for a farce, though. Mr. Ping & Co. are comic foils to the most heartless character in all of Puccini. It is a version, one of several, of the ancient fable about the princess who slays all who love her -- a Freudian archetype of sexual repression gone bonkers.
"Turandot" was the composer's last work, with its final love duet (Turandot's vow is finally broken by Prince Calaf of Tartary) left unwritten at his death in 1924. It was completed by the otherwise obscure Franco Alfano.
It is an opera worlds away from the lyric intimacy in a "Bohe me" or a "Butterfly"; only the role of the slave girl Liu (for whom Puccini wrote some of his most touching music) fits the "Mimi-Butterfly" mold. The title role works best with a Bru nnhilde voice (no exaggeration, for it has been Birgit Nilsson who was most familiar in each role in our time). And even Calaf works best with a heavier tenor than, say, Rodolfo.
Correspondingly, orchestra and chorus are on a grander scale than anything before in Puccini -- much in scenes of pageantry. It is as if Puccini were writing "Aida" (with a touch of "Boris" mixed in).
This production comes from the outdoor ruins of the Arena in Verona, certainly a suitable setting for a work of such scale. The Forbidden City never looked more imposing on a stage. When Turandot descends those stairs from the palace, she has lots of steps.
And the palace is set in a sweeping cluster of puffy clouds and multicolored pagodas. Since much of the opera takes place at night, though, the colors show at a disadvantage to the camera (opera productions always come off darker on television than they really are).
Unfortunately, the performance is not quite the equal of the setting. It is, on the whole, a good performance, but unlike several Puccini operas, this one suffers without singers who are heavy hitters.
The closest they come to the top level vocally is with the leading women. At times, the much-discussed Bulgarian soprano Ghena Dimitrova is up to the extraordinary demands of the title role. In the duet with Calaf in which they confront the riddles, her highs are silvery and free. But in the aria that comes just before, "In questa reggia" (arguably the hardest aria in Italian opera), she is less at ease. Acting is minimal.
Cecilia Gasdia's Liu is better in both respects, but she lacks that extra warmth at the top that makes Barbara Hendricks' Liu so enchanting on the Karajan recording. Her acting is more involved than that of the other principals.
Nicola Martinucci is a wooden Calaf, dramatically and vocally. He rushes "Nessun dorma," the most famous part of the score, perhaps to get it over with sooner.
Ivo Vinco is fine as Calaf's infirm father, Timur. The conducting of Maurizio Arena is respectable, and the chorus is good.
There will be no simulcast.