Music by Giacomo Puccini

Libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni
Puccini’s final masterpiece opens the season under the baton of Music Director Nicola Luisotti, who conducted this melodically rich, colorfully orchestrated work to great acclaim at London’s Royal Opera House in 2009. This passionate tale of a princess whose cruelty masks her fear of love features some of the composer’s most glorious music, including the stirring anthem “Nessun dorma.” It will be performed by an outstanding cast led by Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin, “the world’s reigning Turandot” (Opera Britannia); Adler Fellow Leah Crocetto, an “outlandishly gifted soprano” (San Francisco Chronicle); and Marco Berti, “one of the preeminent Italian singers of his generation” (MusicalCriticism.com).
The lavish production, featuring David Hockney’s “dazzling sets” (San Francisco Chronicle), returns in November with an equally impressive ensemble led by soprano Susan Foster, whose “acting is as impressive as her powerful, well-controlled, emotionally compelling voice” (Washington Post), and Walter Fraccaro, a "husky-voiced" tenor whose singing is "burnished and impassioned" (The New York Times).

Sung in Italian with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 3 hours including two intermissions

Co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago

Production photos: Cory Weaver

Audio credit: Audio excerpts are from the September 13, 2002 performance of Turandot with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Donald Runnicles


Turandot Iréne Theorin * Sept/Oct
Calaf Marco Berti Sept/Oct
Liù Leah Crocetto Sept/Oct
Timur Raymond Aceto Sept/Oct
Ping Hyung Yun Sept/Oct
Pong Daniel Montenegro Sept/Oct
Emperor Altoum Joseph Frank SEPT/OCT
A Mandarin Ryan Kuster * SEPT/OCT
Turandot Susan Foster Nov
Calaf Walter Fraccaro Nov
Liù Leah Crocetto Nov
Timur Christian Van Horn Nov
Ping Hyung Yun Nov
Pong Daniel Montenegro Nov
Emperor Altoum Joseph Frank NOV
A Mandarin Ryan Kuster NOV

Production Credits

Conductor Nicola Luisotti Sept/Oct
Conductor Giuseppe Finzi Nov
Director Garnett Bruce
Set Designer David Hockney
Costume Designer Ian Falconer
Chorus Director Ian Robertson
Choreographer Lawrence Pech

* San Francisco Opera Debut


At sunset before the Imperial Palace in Peking, a mandarin reads the crowd an edict: any prince seeking to marry Princess Turandot must first answer three riddles. If he fails, he must die. The latest suitor, the Prince of Persia, is to be executed at the moon's rising; blood­thirsty citizens urge the executioner on. In the tumult, a slave girl, Liù, kneels by her aged master, Timur, who has fallen from exhaustion. Young Calaf recognizes the old man as his long-lost father, the vanquished king of Tartary. When Timur reveals that only Liù has remained faithful to him, Calaf asks why; she replies it is because once, long ago, he, Calaf, smiled at her. As the sky darkens, the mob again cries for blood but greets the moon with a sudden, fearful silence. The onlookers are further moved when the Prince of Persia passes by and calls upon the princess. Calaf also demands that she appear; as if in answer, Turandot, with a contemptuous gesture, bids the execution to proceed. As the death cry is heard from the distance, Calaf, transfixed by the beauty of the unattainable princess, strides to the gong that announces a new suitor. Turandot's three ministers, Ping, Pang, and Pong, try to discourage him. When Timur and the tearful Liù also beg him to reconsider, Calaf seeks to comfort them; but as their pleas reach new intensity, he strikes the fatal gong and calls Turandot’s name.
In a palace pavilion, Ping, Pang, and Pong lament Turandot's bloody reign, hoping that love willconquer her icy heart and peace will return. The three let their thoughts dwell on their beautiful country homes, but the noise of the populace gathering to hear Turandot question the new challenger calls them back to reality.
     In front of the palace, the aged Emperor, seated on a high throne, vainly asks Calaf to reconsider. Heralded by a chorus of children, Turandot enters to describe how her beautiful ancestor, Princess Lou Ling, was brutally slain by a conquering prince. In revenge, Turandot has turned against all men and deter­mined that none shall ever possess her. Then, facing Calaf, she poses her first question: “What is born each night and dies each dawn?” “Hope,” Calaf answers correctly. Unnerved, Turandot continues: What flickers red and warm like a flame, yet is not fire?” “Blood," replies Calaf after a moment's pause. Visiblyshaken, Turandot delivers her third riddle: “What is like ice but burns?” A tense silence prevails until Calaf triumphantly cries, “Turandot!” While the crowd voices thanks, the princess begs her father not to give her to the stranger, but to no avail. Calaf, hoping to win her love, generously offers Turandot a challenge of his own: if she can learn his name by dawn, he will forfeit his life. Turandot accepts as the crowd repeats the Emperor's praises.
In the palace gardens, Calaf hears a proclamation: on pain of death, no one in Peking shall sleep until Turandot learns the stranger's name. While the prince ponders his impending joy, Ping, Pang, and Pong try to bribe him to leave the city. As the mob threatens him to learn his name, soldiers drag in Liù and Timur; horrified, Calaf tries to convince the mob that neither knows his secret. When Turandot appears, commanding the dazed Timur to speak, Liù cries out that she alone knows the stranger's identity but will never reveal it. Though she is tortured, she remains silent. Impressed by such endurance, Turandot asks Liù’s secret. "Love," replies the girl. The princess signals the soldiers to intensify the torture. Liù snatches a dagger and kills herself. The crowd, fearful of her dead spirit, forms a funeral procession. Turandot remains alone to confront Calaf, who kisses her. Knowing emotion for the first time, Turandot weeps. The prince, now sure of his victory, reveals his identity. As the people hail the Emperor, Turandot triumphantly approaches histhrone, announcing the stranger's name: “Love.” Calaf rushes to embrace her and the court hails the power of love and life.

Turandot at San Francisco Opera

A look at some of the Company's past casts for Puccini's final masterpiece

Birgit Nilsson in the title role (1968)
(Photo by Carolyn Mason Jones)

Inge Borkh sang the title role with the Company in 1953 and 1954

Montserrat Caballé (pictured here backstage) sang the first Turandot
of her career with San Francisco Opera in 1977
(Photo by Caroline Crawford)

San Francisco Opera's 1957 Turandot, Leonie Rysanek (left),
with Rosa Raisa, who originated the role in 1926.
(Photo by Marie Jeanette)

Gabriele Schnaut in the title role, 1998
(Photo by Marty Sohl)

Luciano Pavarotti sang the first Calaf of his career with
San Francisco Opera in 1977
(Photo by Ron Scherl)

Sandor Konya as Calaf, 1961
(Photo by Carolyn Mason Jones)

Leona Mitchell (Liù) and Giorgio Tozzi (Timur), 1977
(Photo by Ron Scherl)

Licia Albanese as Liù, 1953

Leontyne Price sang Liù with the Company in 1961

Actor and comedian Eddie Albert made his operatic debut
with the Company in 1982 as Emperor Altoum

For a complete list of all San Francisco Opera Turandot casts, visit http://archive.sfopera.com

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The Quest for Turandot

Gavin Plumley

An ailing emperor, a tetchy princess, and a prince too eager to please. This fantastical triangle of political and sexual power is the springboard to Puccini’s final opera Turandot.

Composed on a grand scale, with a kaleidoscopic score and packed with orient-infused invention, the grand master of Italian opera left a striking final score as his legacy. But despite the opera’s power to impress, not everyone felt that Puccini had conquered the story’s psychological depths when it was posthumously premiered in 1926. Puccini’s anti-heroine, the Princess Turandot, is immovable; nothing will sway her from her life of bloodlust as countless dignitaries try to solve her riddles and claim her as their bride. Yet Calaf, a foreign prince, is intent on melting her heart. His task parallels that of Puccini, who had to convince his audience that Calaf was capable of winning. The undertaking was somewhat marred when the score remained incomplete at Puccini’s death. Since then others have picked up the gauntlet to try and finish the opera, but their work and the opera in general has often been seen in the wrong light. Its unashamedly lyrical ending can appear as the continuation of Puccini’s taste for tear-jerking tragedy. But this is not a tale of redemption or love lost; Turandot is a gaudy and grotesque insight in the political and social revolutions of the time in which it was composed. Seen against the crumbling empires of post-war Europe and the horrors that lurked just around the corner, Turandot is a brilliant but brutal testament of its time.

Pu-Tin-Pao, the executioner (Justin Roninger) in Act I of this season's Turandot
(Photo by Cory Weaver)
When Puccini came to write Turandot, he was a well-established figure on the worldwide opera map. Since the premieres of Manon Lescaut (1893) and La Bohème (1896), the Lucca-born composer had become well known for his winning combination of high drama and glorious, breathless lyricism. If anything he was a victim of his own success. International acclaim meant that Puccini pursued a breadth of subject matter that his less successful Italian peers were reluctant to contemplate. Using modish American drama as the basis for Madama Butterfly (1904) and La Fanciulla del West (1910) caused consternation among his native critics and colleagues. Yet popular success and an unprecedented international following meant that Puccini had no need to kowtow to local opinion. He was, quite simply, the most successful opera composer of his time. And while some later critics have seen his unashamedly diatonic and melodic scores as regressive, Puccini kept a keen ear on international musical developments. Chic orientalism finds its way into Madama Butterfly, Debussyian harmonies pervade Il Tabarro (the first part of the 1918 Il Trittico) and Fanciulla, while brute kinetic drama forces Tosca (1900) to its nihilistic conclusion. Coupled with a vivid ear and eye for naturalistic detail, Puccini and his collaborators created operas that were both dramatically and psychologically real. The fad of verismo may have been his catalyst, but Puccini trumped any of his peers in the field.
Notwithstanding their dramatic punch, there was a certain sentimental streak within the dramatic core of Puccini’s operas. Always kept in check, this quality came to the fore when Puccini attempted an operetta-opera hybrid in 1916. La Rondine, a glance at hijinks and passions in belle époque Parisian society revealed schmaltzy weakness. Despite its profusion of great tunes and a gently nostalgic touch, the opera hastened the conclusion of Puccini’s romantic style. And with growing criticism at home as to the un-Italianate nature of his subjects, Puccini needed to address that shift and enter a new chapter. Il Trittico (1916) was composed with a number of these changes in mind. It was a full-evening triptych of operas, with contrasting styles and subjects. Il Tabarro was, like Tosca, a brutal veristic tragedy, while the second opera Suor Angelica is a sad but sentimental Italian tale. Gianni Schicchi, with which the triptych ends, is a sour and snappy comedy, based on an incident from Dante’s Inferno. Although there had been humorous moments in all of Puccini’s operas to date, Gianni Schicchi was to be the only thoroughbred comedy within his entire output. It is a masterpiece. And unlike most “comic” operas, it elicits genuine laughs from its audience. Late in his career, Puccini had discovered an acerbic and amusing line to his work. And unlike his previous wallowing melodies, Puccini returned to the sharp and swift style of Tosca. Like a bullet out of a gun, Gianni Schicchi is an efficient but dazzling dramatic treat. It ends in familiarly romantic style, in which the eponymous Florentine newcomer blesses his daughter and son-in-law’s union. But equally, that ending signified the end to Puccini’s high romances. The relative failure of La Rondine had been a sharp indictment of pandering to audience expectation. And his next opera, like Gianni Schicchi, was going to be an acerbic retort to such criticism.

Act I of this season's Turandot
(Photo by Cory Weaver)

Although Turandot boasts the soprano heroine of Puccini’s earlier successes, the subject matter could not be more different. When Puccini and his librettists Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni set out to adapt Carlo Gozzi’s satirical fairytale for the operatic stage, they immediately distanced themselves from Puccini’s past. That said, Puccini also wanted to “modernize and bring human warmth to the old cardboard figures” of Gozzi’s fable. So alongside the stubbornness of Turandot and the seemingly blind faith of Calaf, Puccini invests Calaf’s father Timur and his slave girl Liù with characteristically humane warmth. As such, the project had to chart a difficult and paradoxical trajectory from its inception. However daunting that task, Puccini launched into the work with relish and gusto. The opening bars speak of his unbridled confidence at finding a new and caustic voice for Calaf’s quest. Its angular unison shriek— first heard in the orchestra before the Mandarin commands the people of Peking to listen— instantly repudiates the longing lyricism of La Rondine or La Bohème. Like the brusque opening of Tosca it acts as a call to arms, and the first act of Turandot proceeds at a sprint. Playing on the artificiality of the story, Puccini toys with expectation. Although the initial section of Act I is sweepingly seamless, Puccini underlines the individual arias and choruses, thereby creating dramatic distance.
That element of staged ritual pervades the entire score. And in order to highlight both its unity and its artificiality, Puccini uses clear-cut motifs. They act as building blocks within the drama; they signify moods or characters, yet they also serve to remind us of the deliberately systematic construction of the piece. Puccini was playing a game, aping an old-fashioned language and structure and, to some extent, satirizing his own idiom. Ping, Pang, and Pong and the braying chorus act as catalysts within the mendacious world of the opera. Chattering away, they jeer at Calaf’s belief in Turandot’s love. And as Calaf becomes ever more fervent, the tension mounts. When he calls out the Princess’s name, we hear the execution of the Prince of Persia within the Imperial Palace. His death makes a mockery of Calaf. Laughing at the heroes of Puccini’s past, everything within this opera becomes a parody of its own self. Even the death of the doting Liù cannot detract Calaf from his quest and, after her sobbing funeral march, Calaf becomes yet more insistent.
This combination of determined (but addled) hero and pervasive irony proved difficult to balance. Calaf’s pursuit is clearly based on a lust for power and his sexual attraction to the Princess. Puccini, although keenly aware of the story’s artificiality, could not resist his old affections. He wanted to give this final scene in the opera psychological realism and romantic heart. But it was too late. Calaf has completely undermined his heroism through the needless death of Liù and Turandot has displayed nothing of the warm-heartedness that we have come to associate with Puccini’s heroines. It’s strange, having set out on his quest to create a new type of opera— ironic, distanced, and genre bending— that during his final months, Puccini couldn’t conclude the work within the courage of his convictions. If he had finished the opera as he had started it, it would feel thrilling but cheap, conclusive but contemptuous. These were qualities that Puccini had certainly displayed within the opera to that point, but to which he felt unable to cling during the final scene. His want to “bring human warmth to the old cardboard figures” was his undoing.
Over the last two years of his life, Puccini wrestled with the final love duet. When he died in November of 1924 the scene existed only in a series of sketches. The opera was a large but incomplete fragment. Knowing of his inability to finish Turandot, Puccini indicated that his contemporary Riccardo Zandonai should complete the opera. But his estate blocked the path and eventually Puccini’s ancestors picked Franco Alfano to embellish the sketches after both Vincenzo Tommasini and Pietro Mascagni had been dismissed as contenders. Although many have criticized Alfano’s endings (there are a few versions in existence), he was given an impossible task. Puccini himself had been unsure of how to end the opera, so how was Alfano meant to interpret his sketches? Yet, unlike the other nominees, Alfano had the hallmarks of being absolutely the right collaborator. Rather than Zandonai’s post-romantic lyricism or Mascagni, who had certainly known better days by this point, Alfano had the requisite broad palate. He was influenced by the music of Debussy and Ravel, as well as Richard Strauss’s Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909). Alfano therefore understood the sarcastic nature of Puccini’s last opera. Nevertheless he fell into the trap of following Puccini’s previous examples and over-romanticizing his conclusion. The end of Alfano’s final scene bears the hallmarks of Tosca, rather than the leaner and meaner Puccini of Turandot. Where Puccini had used his hit tune from Act III in Tosca, Alfano follows suit with a broad sweeping version of “Nessun dorma.” With triumphant brass and deafening choral cheers, Alfano brings the opera to an amorous close.

Finale of this season's Turandot
(photo by Cory Weaver)
When set the task of following in Puccini’s footsteps, Alfano did just that. Like Puccini he did not have the courage to complete Turandot in the manner in which it had been started. By disregarding this misconception and by placing the opera in the context of its time, we can reappraise Turandot alongside the operas that influenced Alfano. Richard Strauss’s audacious music dramas, Salome and Elektra, are shocking reinventions of age-old tales. Pushing harmony and orchestral technique to the limit, they mock post-romantic introspection. They push difficult sexual and psychological questions and remain, to this day, as modern and shocking as they were at their premieres. Puccini’s Turandot is rarely considered in those terms and it’s high time we did so. First heard nearly twenty years after either of Strauss’s masterpieces, the halcyon days lyricism of “Nessun dorma” and the wrongheaded optimism of its ending send out mixed messages. But like Strauss, Puccini was writing a brilliant but cynical indictment of the contemporary world. Romanticism was dead. Europe was experiencing rapid and rupturing political and social changes. The empires that had commanded the continent for centuries were collapsing. Such an ending is gruesomely predicted in the decadence and degeneracy of Salome and Elektra. Puccini, given the hindsight of the post-War period, was able to compose Turandot as the final nail in that coffin. Its deathly masquerade of princesses, princes, Ping, Pang and Pong, all sound an enormous gong of change in our world.
Had Puccini left Turandot where he finished— without the sketches for the final scene— then his final masterpiece would have been very shocking indeed. Like the chosen maiden in Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913), the innocent Liù would have been sacrificed to an age-old game of survival of the fittest, lying dead at Calaf and Turandot’s feet. Absolute power had once again corrupted absolutely. Such an ending was not to be and we cannot continue to chastise Puccini for what wasn’t. Unable to find that conclusion he fell back on one of his greatest characteristics, that of wanting to provide a conclusive ending (however wrong its psychological footing). Heard with Alfano’s ending, the sun rises and hope is restored. It is a glorious conclusion and, like Puccini’s earlier operas, wears its heart on its sleeve. But the opera itself and Puccini’s pursuit of a new radical and brutal language within its staged rituals and traditions indicate that a very different day was dawning. Sadly Puccini was not around to determine where that road would have led. But it is thrilling to ponder the changes that were afoot both in Puccini’s score and in the world in which he lived.


Gavin Plumley is a London-based writer and cultural commentator. He writes and broadcasts extensively about twentieth-century opera.

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Nicola Luisotti: Thoughts on Turandot

Robert Wilder Blue

 “To me,” says Maestro Luisotti, “the most interesting story about Turandot is the death of Liù.”

Maestro Nicola Luisotti
(photo by Marco Rossi)
The character of Liù did not appear in the original story by Carlo Gozzi. Puccini and his librettists created her for the opera, but initially the story did not include her suicide. “Puccini insisted that there needed to be a sacrifice,” says Luisotti. “Many people see a connection between Puccini’s insistence on Liù’s suicide and the 1909 suicide of Doria Manfredi.” Puccini’s wife accused her husband of having an affair with Doria, a household servant. The scandal drove Doria to commit suicide, and an autopsy proved her to be a virgin. Recent discoveries point to Doria’s cousin Giulia as the adulteress. “Doria committed suicide rather than betray Giulia. So, when Turandot threatens Liù with death for refusing to reveal Calaf’s identity, Liù, kills herself rather than betray Calaf. Puccini, haunted by Doria’s death, gives her back her innocence. After Liù’s death, Timur says, ‘now is the dawn,’ and is led off weeping. Who is Timur? For me Timur is Puccini, going to an endless night.”
Puccini did not complete Turandot and after his death, Franco Alfano was chosen to complete the opera. Alfano’s first version was not faithful to Puccini’s sketches, and conductor Arturo Toscanini refused it. Alfano wrote a second version, which Toscanini cut substantially and conducted at the second and third performances. This shortened version was performed for many years.
“I am so excited to work with our cast. Iréne Theorin is probably the most impressive Turandot singing today. We performed Turandot together at Covent Garden and she sings the role in true bel canto style. Of course, Marco Berti [Calaf] and Raymond Aceto [Timur] are wonderful. And I think the audience will be thrilled by Leah Crocetto, who is an incredible Liù. She captures the innocence and purity Puccini wanted in this role.”

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Genesis of a Tormented Swansong

Konrad Dryden

Turandot’s history remains intriguingly complex, claiming the composer’s life. A renewed appreciation of the agonizing circumstances leading to the making of Turandot affords an opportunity to unravel one of opera’s most powerful enigmas and, above all, most lethal heroines; one that Puccini himself remained powerless to conquer.

Portrait of Giacomo Puccini
(courtesy Bridgeman Art Library)
Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini’s journey began on December 22, 1858 in Lucca, Tuscany. Initially a choirboy and the fifth generation of a family of composers, Puccini gathered experience playing the organ for religious services in both his hometown and the adjoining provinces before attending a performance of Verdi’s Aida left no doubt as to his own vocation. Following studies at the Milan Conservatory, he was able to secure the interest of the publishing house Casa Ricordi with his first opera, Le Villi (1884), after unsuccessfully entering it in a one-act opera competition sponsored by a rival firm.
With a subject best remembered via Adolphe Adam’s ballet Giselle, Le Villi preceded his second operatic attempt, Edgar, culled from Alfred de Musset’s hopelessly melodramatic La Coupe et les Lèvres. Although admittedly flawed, the composer’s undeniable gift for melodic invention is evident. It was not until Manon Lescaut, however, that Puccini, in 1893, was able to consolidate his strengths to a libretto meriting his talent. His innate sense of theatre fully emerged at this point when realizing the importance of securing a first-rate text grafted onto a solid dramaturgical structure.
The now celebrated composer followed this with yet another French scenario, Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème. It again marked his rampant affiliation to a form of vocal realism (verismo) that, in rapid succession, would also include Sardou’s La Tosca (1900), David Belasco’s adaptation of Madame Butterfly (1904), and his spaghetti western La Fanciulla del West (1910). Exotic locations were, during the fin-de-siècle, de rigueur. Not surprisingly, the psychological ravages of World War I brought about a marked break, with his opting either for lighter works, such as the uneven, sensuous, and melancholic La Rondine (1917), or Il Trittico; a triptych of one-act works that followed in 1918. 
The idea of creating an opera based on Carlo Gozzi’s play Turandotte (1762) seems to have first presented itself in late 1919–early 1920. The version Puccini initially read was not Gozzi’s original, rather Andrea Maffei’s Italian translation of Friedrich Schiller’s version. The modernism of Strauss and Die Frau ohne Schatten doubtless played an estimable role governing his decision to challenge new musical frontiers, coupled by a fervor for Eastern exoticism that, following Madama Butterfly and a never-realized work devoted to Buddha, remained unabated. Intent on locating “something great, audacious, and unexpected,” Turandot appeared to fill the bill.
Although previously working with the librettist Giuseppe Adami (La Rondine, Il Tabarro), his collaboration with Renato Simoni was new. Former editor and drama critic of the Corriere della Sera newspaper, Simoni was already something of an authority on China as well. Inspired by a Persian legend contained in Thousand and One Nights, the subject even attracted Goethe, who lauded the play as a sublime representation of “human destinies fantastically interwoven.”    
Puccini soon demanded numerous alterations as the project progressed, claiming an overabundance of superfluous detail. He waited until January 15, 1921 before receiving a suitable version of Act I, fearful that the librettists need place “pen, paper, and ink” in his tomb should he wish to complete the work. (Additional irritation resulted from the construction of a peat factory near his beloved home at Torre del Lago, forcing a move to a newly built house in the resort town of Viareggio.)
A significant dramaturgical variance presented itself when providing the motivation for Turandot’s vindictiveness resulting from the rape and murder of her ancestor Lo-u-ling by a foreign invader-king. Of greatest importance, however, was the creation of Liù, providing a much-needed opportunity for the delicately fragrant music that had become Puccini’s trademark. The humanity inherent in her characterization supplied a crucial foil to the unaccustomed grandeur of the opera’s Nietzschean prototypes.
Maintaining scope of the work’s largesse proved effortful when confronted by the vocal and histrionic requirements of Calaf and Turandot, impeding progress on a work that he now considered to be both “difficult and troublesome.” He pondered, in near desperation, to abandon the project altogether in favor of a “charming, light, and sentimental” subject more akin to his nature. By January 1923, he was still awaiting text to Act III. Contemplated with hindsight, a letter penned in March of the same year proves haunting: “Turandot terrifies me and I shan’t finish it….”
Ominous signs of throat cancer appeared toward the end of March 1924. With “no desire to work,” the opera—the final duet and finale—continued to languish. “I am thinking of the unfinished Turandot! I hope they will succeed in healing me….” Thus wrote a mortally ill Puccini. Arriving to Casa Ricordi accompanied by thirty-six pages of sketches necessary for the completion, he was convinced it would be a sojourn of some six weeks. The publisher reeled from a nigh insoluble dilemma upon the composer’s sudden demise (from heart failure) on November 29, 1924. His death assured that the score remained incomplete.
Dissolution provided a respite not only from his physical sufferings, but from a painful artistic search as well. This is especially significant in lieu of having written, by way of Liù’s death, his most touching farewell. Aware of the tremendous difficulties of depicting Turandot’s sudden transformation from icon of hate to loving virgin, Puccini fretted over the final Turandot/Calaf duet for the better part of two years. “These two beings that...stand outside the world are transformed into humans through love…” was how he chose to define the challenge of creating a convincing denouement. Consisting of terror, hopelessness, and Kafkaesque fear, Turandot, more nightmare than fairy tale, remains an astonishingly disturbing paradigm of the composer’s final summing-up. The man-devouring Turandot claiming her creator as one of her victims remains a chilling factor, as does the hypothesis that the inspiration for Liù’s touching death resulted from the suicide of one of the composer’s domestics. A blending of these ingredients, while being the final work of Italy’s last major operatic composer, lends the opus a deserved, almost mythical status. 
Dr. Konrad Dryden is professor of music at the University of Maryland-Europe. His recent biography, Franco Alfano: Transcending Turandot, is the first fully documented monograph dedicated to the composer. His previous books include Ruggiero Leoncavallo, Life and Works and Riccardo Zandonai, A Biography.

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Franco Alfano and the Finale of Turandot

Konrad Dryden

Following Puccini’s death, the question remained of who would accept the unenviable task of completing Turandot.

Franco Alfano
(courtesy Bridgeman Art Library)
A godsend came in the form of the sensitive and docile Franco Alfano (1875–1954), composer of the superb Tolstoy-based Resurrezione, who, both “frightened” and “perplexed,” finally accepted the “enormous responsibility” following the “truly moving insistence” of, among others, Puccini’s son, Antonio. The exoticism and superb musicianship marking Alfano’s operas La leggenda di Sakùntala and L’ombra di Don Giovanni were estimable forces. His collegial esteem and amicable affection for Puccini complemented this and, as the press later announced, “Among modern Italian composers, Alfano was in closer communication of spirit with Puccini than anyone else….” However, the pressures and expectations involved culminated in a sudden loss of sight for Alfano, necessitating three months of complete darkness should he wish to save his vision.
            Turandot, following interminable postponements, finally received its premiere at La Scala on April 25, 1926. Arturo Toscanini, the conductor designate, opted for a greatly reduced version of Alfano’s original ending, claiming too much Alfano and insufficient Puccini. While the shortened Alfano ending would go on to be popular for several years, a decision was made to present the world premiere “unfinished, just as Puccini left it, as a mark of respect to the late composer….” Perhaps Toscanini had learned a lesson following the questionable efforts involved in completing Boito’s posthumous and mammoth Nerone. In any event, that Thursday’s performance concluded with the scene of Liù’s death. It is only fitting, bearing in mind that the character is an amalgamation of Puccini’s most touching heroines, that she, in the manner of Mimì, Cio-Cio-San, and Angelica, should draw the final curtain on this most strange, compelling, and disturbing of masterpieces.

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"Nessun dorma": Start with the Music

Larry Rothe

With a tenor like Luciano Pavarotti on its side, “Nessun dorma” was a certain hit.

Luciano Pavarotti in the Three Tenors concert, 1990.
(courtesy of Corbis Images)
Sure, the aria was popular before that evening in July 1990 when Pavarotti sang it at the original Three Tenors concert (the other two tenors were José Carreras and Plácido Domingo), but his performance reached a TV audience estimated at 800 million. Although Pavarotti propelled “Nessun dorma” into the world beyond the opera house, his efforts don’t lessen Puccini’s role. For even Pavarotti needed the right material. Listen to his Moon River from a later Three Tenors concert. It’s no “Nessun dorma.” For that potent music, thank Puccini. Some might dismiss the composer as an emotional manipulator who plays on the heartstrings and leads audiences where he wants them to go, with a minimum of effort on their part. Yes, he possessed a command of musical rhetoric, but no one who loves him would argue that he misused that talent. Think of great Puccini moments—Musetta’s song in La Bohème, Cavaradossi going to his execution in Tosca, the paean to Belleville in Il Tabarro, Magda’s Doretta song in La Rondine. Each is beautiful (of course), but that beauty also conveys complex emotion. For this beauty is elusive and infused with regret, announcing its own fragility. It fades even as it assumes shape, and in our desire to keep hold of a moment that we know we cannot grasp (any more than we can get our hands on time itself), we already look forward to listening again. Give a great melody to a great voice, broadcast the performance worldwide, and chances are good for creating a permanent part of culture. But chances are also good that even those who discovered “Nessun dorma” through Pavarotti will remember the music when they have forgotten the voice.
Larry Rothe, San Francisco Symphony’s Publications Editor, is author of Music for a City, Music for the World: 100 Years with the San Francisco Symphony, a history just published by Chronicle Books.

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Turandot Facts

Statistics on this season's Turandot

Orchestra: 3 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 cimbasso, 2 harps, celeste, 40 strings (12 first violins, 9 second violins, 7 violas, 7 cellos, 5 basses).
Percussion: 1 timpanist (4 drums) and 6 percussionists that play triangle, snare drum, funeral drum, cymbals, tam-tam, 11 tuned gongs, glockenspiel, xylophone, marimba, and chimes.
Backstage: 2 saxophones, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, woodblocks, gong, organ
Personnel: 9 principals; 80 choristers; 20 children onstage, 40 children offstage; 50 supernumeraries; 9 dancers. Total: 199.
The children appearing in this production (listed after the artist profiles)are members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus and the San Francisco Boys Chorus. They are led by Susan McMane, Artistic Director, and Beth Avakian, Chorus School Director, San Francisco Girls Chorus; and Ian Robertson, Artistic Director, and Margaret Nomura Clark, Associate Artistic Director, San Francisco Boys Chorus.

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“Turandot a Triumph...Marvelous!”

“Conductor Nicola Luisotti, gave the thoroughbred S.F. Opera Orchestra its head at every appropriate moment of a powerful, complex score replete with both musical chinoiserie and the unbridled Italianate richness Puccini was famous for...seeming to have the very music itself coursing through his body like an electric current.”

"The S.F. Opera Chorus...was spot-on at every turn."

  –San Jose Mercury News
“Powerful and Dramatic!”

"Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin provided a reminder of just how alluring this icy Chinese princess can seem when her music is sung with grandeur, depth and emotional vigor."

As Calaf, the prince who pursues Turandot, "tenor Marco Berti displayed a muscular, warm and often beautiful vocal gift."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
“A 'Turandot' to Melt For!”

Theorin consistently astounded with her mastery of facial nuance. Rather than appearing as a one-dimensional ice princess who ultimately and unfathomably melted at the sight of her anything but romantic looking suitor (Marco Berti), she used her extremely mobile mouth and eyes to suggest the heart beneath the steel... This is a binoculars-must performance, as rich visually as vocally.”

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
Iréne Theorin and Marco Berti, “a Powerhouse Vocal Match.”

Theorin, hailed for this role in Europe and Asia, steered through its precipitous vocal challenges with force and fervor and expert dynamic control.”

Berti was a ringing, resplendent, firm-toned Calaf, even stentorian at times.”

  –San Jose Mercury News
Adler Fellow Leah Crocetto sang with “elegant phrasing” and “vaunting power.”

"Perhaps the biggest excitement of the evening came from soprano Leah Crocetto, an Adler Fellow whose future stardom has never been in doubt. As the selfless Liù, Crocetto combined elegant phrasing with vaunting power."

“Bass Raymond Aceto gave a sonorous, affecting performance as Timur.”

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Grand opera at its finest—do not miss this production!"

“Puccini’s swan song bloomed to vivid life!”

“Korean-American baritone Hyung Yun (Ping) stood out for the fineness of his voice and beauty of his phrasing. Yun joined with tenor Greg Fedderly (Pang) and supremely agile Adler Fellow tenor Daniel Montenegro (Pong) to create a most delightful trio.”

  –San Francisco Classical Voice


  • Fri 09/9/11 8:00pm

  • Wed 09/14/11 7:30pm *

  • Sat 09/17/11 8:00pm *

  • Thu 09/22/11 7:30pm *

  • Sun 09/25/11 2:00pm *

  • Sat 10/1/11 8:00pm

  • Tue 10/4/11 7:30pm

  • Fri 11/18/11 8:00pm

  • Tue 11/22/11 8:00pm

  • Fri 11/25/11 8:00pm

*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret/Taube Media Suite.


Company Sponsors John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn are proud to support this production. This production is made possible, in part, by the Burgess and Elizabeth Jamieson Fund, The Bernard Osher Endowment Fund, and Opening Weekend Grand Sponsor Diane B. Wilsey.

Cast, program, prices and schedule are subject to change.