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Encores and Curtain Calls

Glorious madness at The Met

Puccini’s ‘Turandot’ comes to Memorial Hall July 24

“Inspiration is an awakening, a quickening of all man’s faculties, and it is manifested in all high artistic achievements.”

— Giacomo Puccini

The final of Giacomo Puccini’s incomparably beautiful creations, “Turandot,” displays this abidingly intimate, exquisitely delicate composer at his most unrestrained and resplendent.

It’s a fabulous — that is to say, fable-like — tale about a Chinese princess whose pathological hatred of men compels her to tempt them into winning her hand by solving three riddles. Oh, and by the way, with the clear understanding that, in the event that they fail, they will be beheaded.

Even though fantastic and absurd, it’s a rather irresistible operatic “hook” won’t you agree? No? Why, then, do we find ourselves finding an excuse to hang around for a while to see how this unlikely life-and-death chess game works out?

Ah, of course, Puccini’s incomparable music! How thoughtless of me. It’s the soul-stealing arias and the sheer chills-up-the-spine awe of his spectacularly mythic “tuttis” (everybody singing) that keep us glued to our seats.

Well, yes, no and maybe. It’s true Puccini was in a class by himself as superb melodist and scrumptious harmonist but there’s something about these musical gifts that explodes exponentially when they’re employed in service of a great story, even an absurdly fascinating story, like, well, “Turandot.”

Taken on a purely logical level, many operatic plots come close to non-credibility; after all, how many back-to-back coincidences and wild contrivances can a rational being accept in two hours — or even three?

Given the massive popularity of many such operas, the answer is quite a few. For instance, just for starters, what man in his right mind would ever dream of taking a genocidal female for a wife, even if she was nice to look at? (Just remember the mummified heads of her former suitors still visible mounted on her palace wall ... that should cure you.)

But these and most all other objections quickly pale in the glow of Puccini’s iridescent, pageant-like music, music which, while clearly not that of traditional China, is lit from within by the archetypal colors of that culture — lavish ceremony, silk-thread-like delicacy and a lyricism that comes out of an almost pained sublimation of emotion. For wonderful examples of the latter, listen to the exquisite arias of Liu, the slave girl (by the way, my vote for the best happily-ever-after woman for the crazed Prince Calaf).

“Turandot” continues the Summer Encore Series broadcast by the Metropolitan Opera. You can see it at Memorial Hall in Shelburne Falls on Wednesday, July 24, at 6:30 p.m.

The production is that of famed Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, who is perhaps best known for his film version of “Romeo and Juliet” and a superb take on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.” Zeffirelli had a natural flair for breathtaking visual narrative and it shows to wonderful effect in the sumptuous ritualism of “Turandot.”

Memorial Hall, 51 Bridge St., Shelburne Falls. Tickets are available at the door or at Mocha Maya’s and Boswell’s Books in Shelburne Falls and World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield.
For more information, www.sfmh.org.

Bolcom & Morris at Mohawk Trail concerts Friday, Saturday

Lovers of the American popular song take note: the next in the Mohawk Trail concerts will be composer/pianist William Bolcom and his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, in their annual performance of theater and cabaret music, including a recollection of Edith Piaf. There will also be an early Bolcom Sonatina for violin and piano with Masako Yanagita.

Many moons ago — somewhere in the late 1960s — Bill Bolcom was a young professor of mine at Queens College in New York. Bright, insouciant and self-pleasingly eccentric, he seemed almost to quietly delight in consternating the stiffer, more venerable academics who also plied their trade at the college, including some quite big guns: composers George Perle and Hugo Weisgall and fiercely serious theorist Felix Salzer. He moved through the department with the feigned innocence of a teenager, from time to time dropping ironic and arch comments that seemed to have virtually no bearing on what was offing in the moment. Turning to take a better look at the source of these marginally subversive utterances, all that one would behold was a guiltlessly boyish face, with perhaps the only giveaway a pair of too-clueless eyebrows lifted in self-conscious unknowing.

But make no doubt about it, Bolcom was in there all along, doing his thing. And he’s still doing it, mumbling brilliant little asides as he introduces this or that song or piece, sharing an amusing anecdote while somehow managing to sandwich a handful of profundities by or about Jean-Paul Sartre, Darius Milhaud, or several dozen other movers and shakers with whom he has been acquainted throughout his career; and still raising his all-too-guileless brows as he turns away to the keyboard, leaving the “thud” of his unsuspected cleverness to trickle and tickle its way through your retroactively amused brain.

But all of it, comprehended or not, carries the same fey, standup-comic glibness of an intellectual who has long ago decided it’s ever so much more fun to amuse, confuse and confabulate his listeners than to wow them with too-articulate, coherent or venerable brilliance.

While he has received considerable attention for his concert works and is considered a ranking contemporary composer, I must confess, after a half century of repeated efforts, that I’ve failed to discover any great depth in his “serious” works. However, as a lover, purveyor and accompanist for the American Songbook he and his dramatically delightful wife are, in the words of one Cole Porter song classic, “the top.”

Friday and Saturday, July 12 and 13, at the air-conditioned Federated Church on Route 2 in Charlemont.  Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 7:30; tickets, $15 to $20; call 413-625-9511, toll free 888-MTC-MUSE; online www.mohawktrailconcerts.org.

An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at

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