Turandot, by Giacomo Puccini
Turandot is Giacomo Puccini’s last work (1926) and, arguably, the last
of its form: Italian grand opera. It is firmly rooted in that tradition,
and there is simply nothing that resembles it after this date.
Famously, Puccini didn’t even get to finish it, and we virtually
always hear it with the ending written by Franco Alfano from
Puccini’s notes. Alfano’s ending was heavily and helpfully edited
by Arturo Toscanini, who conducted the world premiere. I say
helpfully because the uncut Alfano contains too many false
climaxes and vocal flights into the stratosphere—the kind of
excess that Puccini never was guilty of—and it benefits from
tightening-up. The published score represents the finale as
performed in the first production with Toscanini’s cuts.
Turandot is great fun and the public seems to agree. It clearly is
more popular than it was when I was a youth. Luciano Pavarotti
certainly gave it a boost by exposing the public to the great final
act aria “Nessun dorma.” It was known to aficionados, of course,
but other tenor arias were far better known to the general public
before the 1980’s.
Like all of Puccini’s work, Turandot is melodic; it also involves
great breadth. Apart from its big moments, it has delicate moments
and complexity. The opening chorus of Act I, for example, has
large forces spread out and moving about the stage while singing
fast music. This makes for some difficulties in keeping a complex
ensemble in shape.
In Turandot, we see some themes familiar to Puccini fans: It is a
love story, between Turandot and Calaf. Many Puccini operas, too,
have a woman sacrificing herself for love; and it is doubtful that
any realize this archetype more completely, more selflessly, and
with more exquisite music than Turandot’s Liù.
There is also the interest in things Oriental that swept Europe in
the late 19th century through the 1920’s as seen in the paintings of
Matisse and Whistler. In musical terms, like Debussy, Puccini took
an interest in modes—scales in use before Western music zeroed-
in on the major and minor scales we hear from Bach through the
Romantics. When you hear something that sounds “different” from
anything you might hear in Beethoven—even in Beethoven’s later
dissonant works—you are hearing Puccini experimenting with
notes, scales, and relationships that are non-standard, influenced by
modes of the ancient Greeks and Oriental music itself.
If I had to point to something that might be less than obvious to
a first-time listener, it would be the Ping-Pang-Pong trio (Act
II, Scene 1). It is, in fact, a little surprising. After some auditory
fireworks ending Act I, it is quieter. It is also an intricate and
complicated trio. With this trio, too, Puccini lifts the work
dramatically: It is to be noted that the source of this work is a dark
comedy by Carlo Gozzi. Puccini and his librettists took Schiller’s
romantic re-writing and re-worked it further, most notably
inventing Liù to melt the heart of the ice-princess Turandot. But
he also turned the stock-comic characters Ping, Pang, and Pong
into real people with real histories, motivations, and so on. In fact,
this trio, based on commedia del’arte, has the most truly human
characters of the opera.
My first experience of Turandot was a 1961 performance at the
Met: Nilsson and Corelli, with Stokowski conducting. While it
is difficult to isolate one praiseworthy aspect of a performance
with such luminaries, I remember Stokowski pulling a stunning
performance from an orchestra that had great potential but did not
always perform up to that potential in those years. The singing was
beyond description, of course.
Personally, I have also conducted some memorable Turandots
among the 24 performances (8 productions) leading up to
these two, including Ghena Dimitrova’s first North American
performances in this, her signature role (Detroit). This was, easily,
the biggest voice I have ever had the privilege and challenge of
balancing with the rest of the cast; it is nothing less than thrilling
to “drive” such a performance. I also conducted Johanna Meier
in her prime in 1987, at the Florentine Opera. That voice, while
big enough to compete with Puccini’s heavy orchestration, plus
Meier’s style, made it just a tad easier than usual to meet the
ultimate challenge of Turandot—keeping it lyrical, conveying a
believable love story.
In this production, I am pleased to be reunited with Lise
Lindstrom, who sang the role with me in Louisville, Kentucky, in
2007—a worthy successor to Dimitrova and Meier.