Turandot is the unfinished opera that Giacomo Puccini left behind. It was a story, but there is no doubt that it was a terrible story. It seemed to talk about love, but in reality, it very much talked about something else. In fact, it talked about power. For example, about how power is ruthlessly exercised over the weak, about the fascination that power generates in those that dare to look it in the face. Turandot was a love story full of cruelty, pain, blood and death.
But, what is certain is that, above all else, Puccini left us a real enigma in Turandot. What ending would Puccini have given his story, if he had lived to finish it? And so we ask ourselves the question that unsettles us most: is the ending given to this crazy, bloodthirsty story not somewhat strange?
As we have progressed with this production, we have found ourselves increasingly consumed by a subject in its own right: Turandot’s trauma, the key to her unnerving cruelty. Turandot’s ancestress was violently raped by a foreigner, which is the source of her inability to love and her desire for revenge. And this trauma is one of the story’s central concepts.
Another enigma led the way for our production. What does Calaf fall in love with? Because the first time Calaf sees Turandot is in the context of her executing the last prince who dared face the tests that would have allowed him to marry the princess, had he passed them. But the Prince of Persia fails to answer correctly and is sent to the gallows. Calaf, who only sees how Turandot confirms his execution with a merciless gesture, is nevertheless captivated by her beauty. But what would be of Turandot’s beauty without the staging of the cruelty of her power?
A power exercised in a barbarically ruthless manner, such as when, Calaf later sees how Turandot tortures Liù with the intention of forcing the secret of his name from her, the name that Calaf conceals to win Turandot’s love. But Liù, the slave girl in love with Calaf, prefers to commit suicide rather than reveal the name of her beloved and have him condemned. What exactly does Liù’s silence and sacrifice produce in Turandot? Is it the revelation of true love or the revelation of love’s power? In any case, how can such a cruel act result in a happy ending? How can Liù’s suicide lead to the dénouement of this agonising love story?
This is why, for all of us on the creative team, power is the second central concept of Turandot. More specifically, the omnipotent power exercised by kings and queens and emperors and empresses of the great empires of the past, such as China, Egypt and Babylon. What interests us about this (moral or immoral) story is the staging of a world of cruel social stratification. A world in which the distance between the emperor and the people is simply that of a vertiginous hierarchy.
This was what inspired our first idea of employing a pyramid to map the distance. Although it soon evolved into another idea, an inverted pyramid, as it conveys a more oppressive sensation, that of a closed space, in which the agonisingly narrow base is where the desperate, ragged people are cramped together and where the power, up high, is as splendid as it is overwhelming. The stairs perched on the walls of the inverted pyramid act as a gateway for those who aspire to get closer to the power.
With this idea, images from Blade Runner, the photographer Sebastião Salgado’s photos of Serra Pelada gold mines, Escher’s Penrose stairs and nightmares from Kafka’s The Castle or The Trial intermingle. It is a timeless universe, which can transport us to an undiscovered past or a distant future, regardless of whether it is based on a palace or a spaceship. Turandot, is no doubt, a fantastic story, a story that abides by a logic unlike the one that governs the real world. Turandot’s world is symbolic; it is a closed space that is impossible to escape.
This is the world where Turandot must be placed. It makes sense that Turandot is a woman who is traumatised by the abuse and mistreatment her ancestress suffered at the hands of men. She is a woman that spent years brooding hate towards men, and this furious hate pervades the politics of the kingdom that she must rule one day alongside the consort that she seems to be looking for, but actually refuses to find.
It is a dungeon-kingdom, a bunker-kingdom, where the hierarchy of power almost acts like a tombstone. That is Turandot’s fragility. A woman who, before the people, appears to be clad in robes made of gold. But when she removes her armour and faces herself, she is a woman of monastic austerity. A weak, unprotected woman. What is surprising is why she is unable to accept the rules to her own game. Why does she not agree to get married as arranged? Why does her frustration and hate triumph until she kills the slave girl Liù?
Compared to Turandot, Calaf is nothing but a beggar, a nobleman dispossessed of his riches because his father, the former King of the Tartars, was dethroned. Like Turandot, Calaf also seems to be blinded by his own trauma. In this case, Calaf’s trauma prevents him from noticing Liù’s love, the hopeless love of a slave, who, given her love for Calaf, is capable of renouncing her own happiness to accompany and protect his father and is even capable of giving up her own life for her love for Calaf. Turandot’s magnificent appearance in the magnificent staging of her power blinds him. He acts as if he were blinded by power at all times. Both Turandot and Calaf are slaves to their pasts.
In this symbolic universe, Liù acts as a counterpoint to Turandot and Calaf. She is a slave; she is nothing. Her life has no worth. Not for Turandot, who, through torture pushes her to suicide, nor for Calaf, who does not waste a single moment in considering her love. The distance between Liù, on one hand, and Turandot and Calaf, on the other, is the maximum distance between top and bottom.
In the strange ending of Puccini’s unfinished work, Liù’s death does not even tarnish the triumphal path of love that ultimately unites Turandot and Calaf. But it is evident that we must stop and consider the quality of this love, because it is not a love that could be described as humane. What Turandot and Calaf find in their union is pure glorification of power, in all of its merciless cruelty, in all of its contempt for the weak and all the splendour of its symbolism. There is no happy ending, but the feigned exaltation of power hidden behind the cynical appearance of the discovery of love.
Could it be that the triumph of cruelty is not really how this opera should end and a new ending needs to be written? This is where, following the thread of Turandot’s trauma, we discovered an alternative ending for this story, which would probably have appealed to Puccini. From the outset, our objective has been to recover the coherence with which Puccini constructed the plots of his operas, and above all, his great tragic heroines.
Compositor: Giacomo Puccini
Libreto: Adami, Simoni, Alfano
Stage Director: Àlex Ollé (La Fura dels Baus)
With the collaboration of: Susana Gomez
Set Designer: Alfons Flores
Costume Designer: Lluc Castells
Lighting Director: Urs Schoenebaum
Turandot’s world is symbolic; it is a closed space that is impossible to escape.