Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Original 1926 poster
Turandot was the first Puccini opera I obsessed over as a teenager. Unlike other boys, the first technology that captured my imagination was stereo sound, which was the big new thing then. I went crazy and soon had a gigantic stereo setup in our house, and aside from all the other classics I was hoovering up, I collected all the newest stereo opera recordings. The Metropolitan Opera was still visiting Toronto on it's annual tours, so I was heavily influenced by whatever operas they brought, which was mostly Verdi, bel Canto (Rossini Donizetti), and Puccini. But, with it's torrid 'love' issues, seductions, and  'adult' intrigues, Puccini was a little beyond my scope.

I was more there for the pomp and pageantry, the voices, the large choruses and ceremonial set pieces, and orchestral brilliance that informs much of opera to some degree. Puccini was still a little too musically chromatic and 'slithery' to me: I listened to Tosca, and it seemed a welter of brilliant colours and unsavoury seduction that I just could not get into. I saw a magnificent production of Boheme in Vienna as a twelve year old boy, back there on a visit,  and was so bored by all the love interests in it, I actually left my loge to talk to the attendants in the foyer. There seemed to be something cheap about it, but I mistook Puccini's amazing ease with producing deathless melody for glibness, and since Puccini, as the best musically equipped Italian opera composer, can write a tune that can convince you of anything, of manipulative calculation.

It was not till I happened onto Turandot that I became obsessed by a Puccini opera. In the middle 20th Century, Turandot was not generally appreciated, although it was produced. It is really an anomaly amongst Puccini's operas, in that it is really a Grand Opera, with it's ceremonial set pieces and oriental splendour, with only an element of the 'verismo' reality-style that Puccini had done so much to make his own. The verismo movement came in specifically to remedy the monumentality and grandness suffusing much of 19th Century opera, with an interest in presenting the real events of real people in real life.

With its mythic fairy story, and magnificent  public rituals, processions and ceremonies, Turnandot had been a change of direction for Puccini, who actually put real effort into trying to do the creative, unexpected thing: he even wrote a 'Cowboy Opera' for the Met, 'La Fanciulla del West' [The Girl of the Golden West]. Had be been able to finish it, Turandot might have become Puccini's unquestioned masterpiece.

Courageously, Puccini liked to tackle emotional life issues that were rife with him in his own life, so that the dramaturgical points create catharsis around familiar problems, especially around amatory and sexual politics, but very much as a man of his time, admitting his collusion in them. He, of course, being 'in love' with women, managed to broach a number of 'women's' issues.

Giacomo Puccini in 1908
As a notorious but discreet and slippery seducer of the ladies, Puccini thought nothing of using his fame and allure to fascinate women, especially of 'inferior' classes, and he was very successful with casual hookups with maids and servants. He must have felt guilty on some level, because the very painful gist of Madamma Butterfly, for example, is the deconstruction of Pinkerton's irresponsible and destructive seduction of a woman that results in her suicide, with Pinkerton realizing too late what he has done.

Here, Puccini is parsing the results of a behaviour he frequently participated in, expiating, or at least bringing to attention the destructiveness of such casual seductions, and creating in the opera, perhaps, a deterrent for such attitudes.

The plot of Turandot is the well known fairy story of the Princess who will marry any man (only princes accepted) who can answer three questions she poses. If they fail they are executed. Turandot is so beautiful and wealthy that a constant stream of applicants submit to the test, all to fail, all to die. Her motive for this is to exact a punishment on all men, for the tragic rape of a past princess, whose fate she obsessively mourns. Turandot is in fact one of the first exponents of a redressing feminism, that has become very familiar to us.

But Turandot is accused of coldness and vengeance, and aside from her beauty seems to have few of the attributes of yieldingness or humanity that would make her attractive.

The hero Calaf, the 'Unknown Price', with his father a deposed king and his only servant girl Liu, who secretly loves him abjectly, arrives and, caught up by Turandot's beauty, proposes to answer the questions, and put his life on the line. Members of Turandot's own court try to turn him from his folly. Even as he sees the execution of the last failed suitor, he persists.

The middle act of the opera is the riddle scene, a monumental fantasy featuring the Emperor, Turandot's father, and his court and all the ritual around asking the questions. Calaf answers them successfully, but when he sees that Turandot will still not gladly marry him and fall in love with him, gives her a counter-proposal.  Since Turandot nor anyone at the court knows his name, he will forfeit his life to her if she can find it out before the next dawn.

The last act begins with Calaf's aria, perhaps Puccini's best tune, which has in recent decades become justly famous especially from the Three Tenors concerts when it was promulgated around the world, even to the world's soccer fans. Now it is ubiquitous, but it is one of many melodies that cram this score. 

Marco Berti as Calaf
The dramaturgically effective denouement is packed with issues, the last of which Puccini was not able to solve musically for a very personal reason, and this prevented him from actually finishing the opera.

The princess calls for anyone to find out Calaf's name, and it is realized that his followers must know it. The torturer is called to extract the name from Liu and she commits suicide to keep the secret, proving her love for the price.

When at the dawn ceremony, Calaf realizes Turandot is still cold to him, tells her his name, and, in giving her the power of life or death over him, [such a 'woman's' issue], hopes to melt her heart with his total surrender. At the end, when the princess is to tell his name, she falters and proclaims "His name is…Love" and breaks her murderous impasse.

Now Puccini had for years been married to a woman who was cold and rigid, especially sexually, which must have been one of the reasons for his constant philandering, and when he came to the very end of this opera, could not bring himself to find the music to describe the melting of the princess' heart. It would have been psychologically and emotionally important to have Puccini's music to be guided through these final capitulations, and it is a pity that we will never know what music he might have produced to convince us of the ending.

It points at the unresolved tragedy at the core of his own married life. What makes the parallel with his own real life even more compelling is the fact that Puccini had been accused of a dalliance with one of his maids, and she had committed suicide over it. Subsequent autopsy revealed her to be still a virgin, so had been innocent.

However, 95 percent of Turandot had been completely finished, so it was given to another verismo composer, Franco Alfano, to complete, for the eventual premiere, by Toscanini. Some of the text describing the rapprochement between the Prince and Turandot at the end was truncated, and the final moments of the opera score are filled with the rising dawn, and the excitement and glory of the final victory, and is still an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

Toscanini sabotaged the whole effort when he stopped the premiere at the point Puccini had stopped composition, so there would have been a glaring discontinuity, which would not have even been noticed if he had not stopped.

It is almost moot that we should complain that Puccini failed to produce that final tune to show the melting of Turadot's heart, and musically the opera seems complete with Alfano's ending. He wisely capped the whole affair with Calaf's winning tune in a final peroration, so we are sent home humming.

Too much is made of the fact that Puccini did not finish this piece, but the fact that he was simply not able to do so—he did have time—points to the fact that Puccini really was getting all his inspiration from his own life experience, which filled all the tunes he completed with such irresistible vitality and conviction, and in this one instance, he did not have the life experience that would have gone into his art.

 Michael Doleschell keeps mostly to non-fiction, and is deeply devoted to music and culture and never tires of history, and is fascinated by science and the scientific method [as long as they are well explained]. He broadcasts a program of Classical Music for 3 hours every Saturday afternoon from noon till 3 on the U of G's Radio Station: CFRU.

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