Old Mother Goose,
When she used to wander,
Would ride through the air
On a very fine gander.
This poem, along with all the other “Mother Goose” poems, was extremely important to John Senior, the Catholic educator who inspired the creation of The Civilized Reader column you are reading now. He was especially enamored with the “soft rhyme” between “wander” and “gander.” In gnomic fashion, he declared that a child who appreciates this almost-rhyme will have “the right receptors:” the ability to perceive things as they are, the taste for good things, the foundation-stone for the perception of the things of God. The “soft rhyme” can also be seen as an exquisite metaphor for the place of good stories in learning about the good God. Like the relation of the first word in a rhyme to the second word, a good story is different from but prepares the heart and understanding for divine revelation. The more uncanny the resemblance, the better to surprise the heart into contemplation. And that is why the opera Turandot is an appropriate work to consider during the Holy Triduum, because this holy time rhymes with Puccini’s opera in a wonderful and strange way.
Like “wander” in relation to “gander,” Turandot may seem, at first, entirely discordant with the story of Our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. The hero, Calaf, falls in love with the title character simply because she is beautiful, not for any moral goodness. Furthermore, to pursue this cold-hearted and murderous queen, Calaf abandons his father, apparently in his utmost need. What resonates here with Christ’s ugly Passion and Death, suffered for the salvation of our souls, in perfect obedience to his Father?
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Nevertheless, deeper meditation will sense a resonance. Christ speaks to us hardhearted men and women with these words: “How beautiful art thou, my love, how beautiful art thou!” (Song of Solomon 4:1) Beauty, in physical terms, is the way the heavenly bridegroom speaks of love. And if Christ seeks us for the beauty He Himself created in us, and in spite of our cold hearts, He is under the obligation set for suitors in Sacred Scripture: “A man shall leave father and mother, and cleave to his wife.” (Genesis 2:24)
Indeed, Turandot, in a way no other story does, prepares the “right receptors” in us for one aspect of Redemption: the baffling nature of Christ’s love for us in spite of, not only our unworthiness, but our resistance to His love. For all that the theologians tell us about the beauty in potentia He saw in us, what we could be as souls redeemed and finally capable of loving Him in return, there is no escaping this truth: all of us vicariously have shouted “crucify him!” while He was wooing us with His beautiful teachings and miracles. We will do so again. And yet He will continue to seek our love. Similarly (though it is a jarring and bizarre similarity), Calaf places himself in Turandot’s power not once, not twice, but three times. Indeed, Turandot has been called a flawed masterpiece by the critics because Calaf’s love is incomprehensible.
Being incomprehensible, however, it rhymes with the sacrifice of Good Friday. Like episodes from the Old Testament, such as Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers, it opens the door a crack to accustom our eyes a little bit before we have to face the light full on.
Here it is appropriate to mention the most famous scene in this opera, the aria “Nessun Dorma:” Calaf has given Turandot one last chance to kill him instead of marry him if she can only discover his name before morning. Turandot pursues this task fruitlessly through the night and Calaf ends the aria with exultation as the day approaches:
Dilegua, o notte!
Vanish, o night!
Set, you stars!
At dawn I will win!
I will win! I will win!
The Church puts sentiments like this in Christ’s mouth during His darkest hours at the Matin service on Holy Saturday: “Lift up your gates, O ye princes, and be ye lifted up, O eternal gates; and the King of glory shall enter in,” (Psalm 23) “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” and, “My enemies that troubled me have been weakened, and have fallen,” and, “I believe to see the good things of the Lord in the land of the living.” (Psalm 26) In this midnight of salvation history, during the separation of Christ’s body, blood, soul, and divinity, what is Christ like but a lordly lover who knows that He is about to win?
Not only do parts of the opera like “Nessun Dorma” thrill the heart, but they also darkly reflect particular mysteries hidden in the Passion. Not only do parts of the opera reflect the Passion, but so also does the whole; it is a tune, lovely in itself, that accentuates the melody of salvation history when it is juxtaposed. Turandot, like Christ’s life, ends with the salvation of the conquered as well as the victor’s triumph. One more fateful time, having established his right to marry the princess, Calaf puts his life in her hands by revealing his name. This is something like the fateful encounter of Christ with every individual soul after the victory of the Resurrection; will one give one’s heart to this Savior, or crucify Him again?
The drama is high because the stakes are so high, and that is why an opera is required to rhyme with this confrontation, all important to us and which takes up our life rather than the space of a duet, where Christ comes to us with the proofs that He has earned our love dug into His body, and again puts Himself into our power, literally offering His body which we may sacrilege if we so choose. Sacrilegious communion is compared to the treachery of Judas, and indeed, Turandot’s temptation at the end is the sin of Judas: to kill the lover by identifying him. Instead, Turandot finally embraces the man who has sacrificed all for her. This about-face seems unrealistic, since Turandot is no ordinary villain but a confirmed murderess, a kind of serial killer; of course, the turning of a soul to Christ at the last minute also seems unrealistic, but it happens. Calaf and Christ are similar in displaying a love which is the only thing incomprehensible and self-sacrificing enough to bring about such wonderful transformations. The ending hymn to Love provides a fitting platform to rhyme the joy of the Gloria at the Vigil Mass for Easter:
O sole! Vita! Eternità!
Luce del mondo è amore!….
Gloria a te! Gloria a te!
O Sun! Life! Eternity!
Love is the light of the world!….
Glory to you! Glory to you!
Over the course of this Triduum, the Church presents us with a kind of cosmic opera in her liturgy. This liturgy will treat of divine things in terms fit for human beings, susceptible to human meditation, human tears, and human joy while also being a participation in divine meditation, tears, and joy. A viewing of Turandot, in preparation for this human and divine drama, would be conducive to becoming more attuned to these sentiments, in addition to becoming more civilized.