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.