TORONTO—Most young women dream of meeting their prince charming and living happily ever after. Yet there are exceptions. The princess Turandot, the heroine of Giacomo Puccini’s early 20th-century opera by the same name, is one of them.
Turandot is so afraid of meeting her husband that as soon as a prince comes to ask for her hand in marriage, she throws him a life-or-death challenge: answer three riddles correctly or die the following day. Many young men have tragically perished so far.
One day, an unknown prince comes to try his luck. The emperor and the minister, eager to prevent more bloodshed, implore him, “Go away, go. … Madman, go away!” But the young man stays, as he has fallen in love with the princess. Turandot gloats, confident she will send him to his death.
The princess’s cruel game has its origins in history. She is seeking to avenge the memory of an ancestress who was brutally murdered by an invading king. So far, her plan has worked. Yet this new suitor is different. He answers all her riddles. Scared, the princess begs her father, the emperor, to save her from the terror of marriage.
But her father answers solemnly, “The oath is sacred!”
Seeing Turandot’s desperation, the prince offers her a way out. She doesn’t know who he is, so he tells her if she discovers his name by dawn he will die willingly. If she doesn’t, they will marry. Turandot is determined to win, so she sends out the herald with the message: “No one must sleep. … Under the pain of death, the name of the stranger must be revealed before morning!”
The prince sings “Nessun dorma,” (“No one must sleep”), the song that many of us know. It’s a beautiful tenor aria filled with hopes of love and triumph.
The drama unfolds as we watch breathlessly. Confident, the prince sings “Vincerò,” “I will win.” But how many people will die? And how will Turandot endure if he wins?
American soprano Marjorie Owens is in Toronto to play the princess in the final two performances of the Canadian Opera Company’s (COC) production of “Turandot,” this month. Owens, who is making her role debut, has compassion for the princess.
“She’s so terrified of them taking her choice away, not giving her one, that she has this whole deadly ritual,” says Owens. “When the man finally conquers that ritual, he could force her to marry him, but instead he says, ‘Well, how about you guess my name?’ That way it’s twisted around and it’s turned on her.”
Through the process, the ruthless Turandot has a chance to grow, especially through the courage and sacrifice she witnesses. One woman gives up her life to save the man she loves.
“I think she starts paying attention to other people’s pain, other than her own. She’s a princess, she’s only had to focus on herself, but now with this drama unfolding before her … she starts to understand the world a little bit better because what she’s so terrified of, what she’s so scared of, are stories of the past. It’s not things that she’s experienced in real life,” says Owens.
“It’s just a gorgeous score. It’s probably one of my favourites that Puccini did,” says Owens.
Turandot is like a spoiled child, but also a vulnerable woman, which gives her the opportunity to express different qualities through the words and music.
“When she comes in, the second scene of the second act, she has the big aria, and then she has the riddle scene and it’s all very aggressive singing. She’s kind of furious throughout the whole thing, but then when [the prince] answers her riddle and he gets it right, then all of a sudden, she switches. She turns to her father, ‘Please don’t make me marry this man.’ And it’s just the most beautiful, heartrending melody—this soft, gorgeous singing. It’s kind of funny how quickly she changes,” says Owens.
This COC production is staged by American director Robert Wilson, known for his experimental staging. For “Turandot,” he uses a minimalist look with stark lighting, futuristic costumes, and mechanistic movements.
“You have to fight that urge [to react to what is happening onstage] because you have very stylized motion. Most of the time, it’s more about the music,” says Owens.
Despite the role’s intensity and restrictive staging demands, the singer is having a good time. She is taking the director’s advice to heart. “Just have fun with it. It’s a fairy tale.”
The Canadian Opera Company’s production of “Turandot” runs until October 25, 2019 at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. For more information, visit: www.coc.ca