“The Moth Princess” is a 70-minute adaptation of Puccini’s full-length opera, “Turandot” into a delightful fantasy of an insect kingdom, full of metaphor and allegory. Despite its brevity, the production seen at the Royal Opera House Muscat last week included all the main characters and much loved arias of Puccini’s original.
It formed part of a project by The Education and Outreach wing of ROHM to introduce Muscat’s school children to the world of opera and include them in an interactive performance where they study and sing the chorus of four songs and hold up illuminated firefly props made by them, from their seats in the auditorium. To involve as many schools as possible, public and private, the company Teatro Sociale Di Como AsLiCo from Italy presented no less than four morning performances to houses packed with students from — just about every school in Muscat — aged 7 — 14 years old. There was also a performance open to the general public on Saturday afternoon.
There is a single set for the one-Act opera designed superbly by the much sought after Michele Olcese, and the curtain rises to reveal a dark woodland scene covered in dry leaves with projections of flying insects, as envisaged by Director, Silvia Paoli. The opera opens with the Mandarin, a comic, crawling cockroach, sung brilliantly by Bassano-born Baritone, Andrea Zaupa, announcing the imminent execution of the Prince of Persia for failing to win the beautiful Princess Turandot’s hand in marriage by answering three impossible riddles, or ‘enigmas’.
Amongst the crowd rushing to the scaffold is Timur, the elderly exiled King of Tartary, played by the only non-Italian in the cast, the aptly Chinese-born Bass, Shi Zong. His gravitas was palpable, and with him came his faithful servant Liu, perhaps the centre of the drama and sung in all 5 performances by the diminutive Soprano, Sarah Tisba, prima donna of AsLiCo. Liu is Love and Devotion epitomised and in turn fell in love with the hero of the story, Timur’s son, Prince Calaf, “Because one day he smiled at me”. By coincidence Calaf appears, and falls into his father’s arms after so long apart, but when Turandot appears to order the execution, Prince Calaf falls immediately in love with her, presumably struck by her beauty and power. 37-year old Tenor, Dario Prola from Aosta sung the demanding role with passion and strength, making him a credible suitor and Paramour. His rendition of ‘Nessun Dorma’ was powerful and convincing.
The 21-strong “Orchestra 1813” in the shallow pit, and the children’s choruses in the auditorium, were directed with great authority and finesse by young Italian conductor, pianist and composer, Maestro Alessandro Palumbo.
The production was not without its light relief, and the comic cockroach characters of Ping, Pong and Pang were hugely amusing, scrabbling about on all fours and twisting their skirts into cocoons to hide their heads, as they listed the number of Princes put to death by their ruthless ruler; the Emperor himself had become an impotent transparent dragonfly, who only ever appeared as a projection, eclipsed by his dehumanised daughter.
Calaf decided to accept the challenge of the three riddles so he can win the ice-cold Princess. Turandot could be a butterfly, but instead she is a moth; dark and sinister who moves only at night, she is unable to emerge and remains tied to the bonds of the chrysalis representing her mission of revenge for her ancestor Lou-Ling who was killed by a foreign prince many years before, and in her memory Turandot is resolute that she will not marry. No light-hearted children’s fairy-tale here then.
Turandot was sung magnificently by Soprano, Rossana Cardia in a role reminiscent of the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’ for its high tessitura. Of course Calaf answers the three enigmas correctly — Hope is born every night and every day it dies; Blood is feverish and flaming, as bright as the sunset, and Turandot herself is the Ice that sets you (Calaf) on fire and has the power to make him King. But a twist prevents her accepting her fate and she pleads not to be forced into marriage. Calaf turns the tables and offers her a riddle to guess his name before dawn. This provides a vehicle for the ultimate sacrifice — not of Prince or Princess — but the faithful servant, Liu, who alone knows his name, and even under torture will not reveal his name. She teaches Turandot the power of Love, and that soon she herself will burn with the same flame. And thus Liu kills herself, unwinding her long red cummerbund as a metaphor for life’s blood. With a kiss Calaf melts Turandot’s stone cold heart and at dawn she declares the name of the stranger is “Love” and acquiesces to her fate which finally frees her people.
Within the schools’ project was a unit to study the insects of Oman and gain a greater understanding of their misunderstood abilities, and then to make the luminous firefly props out of plastic bottles, crepe paper and small torches. The concept was commendable, and many of the children were given the opportunity to enter the auditorium for the first time, as well as see a professional production with live opera singers. I was fortunate to attend two shows, but in both it was clear that the style of singing was challenging, the metaphors in the story and on stage were way beyond pre-teens, and 70 minutes is a huge time-span to maintain focus. The ideal of Liu as a positive character, for example, who kills herself in the name of a higher ideal, for a noble end may strike a chord with teenagers approaching young adulthood, but her symbolic representation of perfect devotion was lost on the children invited. Why did Calaf fall in love with such an unlovable character as Turandot? The adults left the theatre pondering the deeper meaning, the children relieved that now they could eat pizza.