Turandot: a brief overview

by Claudio Toscani


Before Turandot, Puccini had always created his operas around realistic and sentimental subjects, and around psychologically well-defined plots, settings and characters typical of the Italian operatic tradition.

However, with Turandot set in an imaginary China “of the age of fables”, the composer followed a very different path. He chose a fairy-tale subject and sketched quite an untraditional protagonist, a symbolic figure, an extremely proud princess who smothers all human sentiment within herself. It was the journalist, expert sinologist and playwright Renato Simoni who suggested that Puccini should base his opera on the play of the same title by Carlo Gozzi (1762), who had been inspired by the Histoire de Calaf et de la Princesse de la Chine by the orientalist Pétis de la Croix (1712), a story which has very ancient roots in the Far East. Puccini must have been attracted by the exotic setting (western musical orientalism had reached its peak between the end of the Nineteenth and the beginning of the Twentieth centuries, but the taste for the exotic was still popular in Europe), as well as the opportunity to exploit the great spectacular effects, the static ceremonial, the taste for the tableau and the stylistic precepts of the grand opera. The preparation of the libretto was left to Simoni himself, who wrote the plot, and Giuseppe Adami, who wrote the lyrics. Puccini began work in 1920. He probably considered Turandot to be the first opera in a new creative phase, and so he threw himself wholeheartedly into his work, although it was clear from the start that he was facing no easy task. As he alternated moments of enthusiasm and frustration, Puccini took longer to write Turandot than any other of his operas. The difficulties were especially caused by the fantasy-fairy-tale genre that was so far-removed from the Italian operatic tradition. The composer felt the need to re-interpret the subject and characters of Gozzi’s story. In the original, the protagonist is only a capricious girl, but Puccini turns her into a tragic figure: the cold, cruel princess who has given herself a mission to reap revenge; but also the woman who is in the end transformed, who thanks to love is able to have human feelings. Calaf also had to acquire more substance, he had to become an authentic, coherent hero so that his challenge to the princess might be credible. The invention of Liu, who does not appear in the original tale, was decisive and allowed Puccini to introduce to the opera a theme of great pathos and one familiar to his theatre: sacrifice in the name of love. Liu’s tragic end coincides with the emotional climax of the opera and, at the same time, represents a decisive turning point in the drama: it is from this moment that Turandot begins to yield; it is at this moment that the crowd, touched by the slave girl’s supreme selfless sacrifice, turns its back on the princess and implicitly delivers her up to the victor. By introducing such a fragile, moving figure that closely resembles Mimi and Butterfly, Puccini makes the victory of love and humanity over primitive barbarism plausible. The humanising process of the protagonist is made clear first of all in the music, which highlights typical contrasts within acts and scenes. The number of differing styles is what distinguishes the musical language of Turandot. Puccini employs, for example, the usual elements of what westerners considered exotic and which had been a part of European opera for some time. At the same time, he also uses a more specifically “Chinese” register: he acquires and studies some authentic Chinese melodies, one of which (“Fior di gelsomino”) is associated with the charming fascination of the princess. The ironic or grotesque scenes in which Ping, Pong and Pang, the three ministers, appear allow Puccini to include some comic relief in the drama, in the manner of the commedia dell’arte: indeed, these are the scenes in which there is a greater show of chinoiseries, both authentic and adapted. Elsewhere, Puccini makes free use of dissonant harmonies: Turandot’s cruelty, for example, is rendered by harsh, biting tones. However, the opera contains numerous passages in the composer’s usual style, with its warming, diatonic language, as well as moments that are closer to the Italian operatic tradition (Liu’s aria in the first act, Calaf’s in the third). Puccini’s greatest difficulty was how to represent the princess’s transformation from the pure symbol of a cold, cruel being, to a human character with real feelings. For obvious reasons related to dramatic congruence it was not possible to turn to the means and style adopted in his other operas, with their very human heroines we know so well. Puccini found a bold, new solution, but the composition ran aground right on the last duet, the crucial episode in which the princess is conquered and transformed by love. On 29th November 1924, Puccini died before completing the opera. The score that he left unfinished ended with the funeral procession which accompanies Liu’s lifeless body in the third act, but beyond this, there were only a few annotations and fragments of ideas. Arturo Toscanini suggested that the opera should be entrusted for completion to Franco Alfano, who was renowned as an excellent orchestrator, a reputation he had earned thanks to his Sakùntala. His finale, however, is unsatisfactory. This is due not so much to the sparkling colour of the orchestration (his style is not wholly in harmony with Puccini’s), but more to the excessively abrupt change in the protagonist (Alfano cuts short Turandot’s humanising process), as well as to the sudden drop in the tension that has led, in an emotional crescendo, to Liu’s suicide. These are the reasons why, at the opening of Turandot at La Scala on 26th April 1926, Toscanini could not bring himself to finish the performance, ending it at the exact place that Puccini had reached in composing the score. The new ending by Luciano Berio (2001) proposes a different musical dramaturgy to conclude Puccini’s last masterpiece.

(Traduzione di Chris Owen)



Milan, Teatro alla Scala - Turandot

Giacomo Puccini (Luciano Berio's Finale)

Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro alla Scala - Treble Voices Chorus of the Teatro alla Scala Academy - New Production

From 1 to 23 May 2015

Conductor, Riccardo Chailly. Staging, Nikolaus Lehnhoff. Sets, Raimund Bauer. Costumes, Andrea Schmidt-Futterer. Lights, Duane Schuler. 

Choreography, Denni Sayers

Category: Mozartiana