I had to respond to Reaction’s imperious demand; the motto is “Nessun Dorma” (no one sleeps).

Berlin, Sunday, 12 May 15:00 CET: Unter den Linden. Event? Opera Meets New Mediaan exhibition in the stunning Bertelsmann building illustrating how Ricordi, the Italian music publisher and its star signing, that annoyingly-everywhere Taylor Swift of the early 20th century, Giacomo Puccini, met the challenge of new media.

Back then, it was rubbish recordings on brittle shellac. Today it is MP3s, streaming platforms, and AI composing. Ricordi took on the challenges others ducked. They embraced emerging technology, shaped a world of increasingly respected intellectual property rights protection as music spread to the masses. And the rest, as they say, is history. Now history is repeating itself. 

Then I found myself in Washington DC. Monday, 13 May 19:30 EST. A few tossing and turning hours, two unsatisfactory airline meals and an Amtrak burger later, I was at the Washington National Opera (WNO) in the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, overlooking the sluggish-grey Potomac River for a game-changing version of Puccini’s unfinished Chinese-themed masterpiece, Turandot.

Note the timelines and your opera critic’s selfless dedication to tracking down even transatlantically separated events on consecutive days, each bookending Puccini’s two main talents – composition and self-promotion – marking the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death. 

Puccini’s Ricordi relationship – the venerable Italian publisher also arranged performances of his operas – netted the composer a fortune of around $200m. Elon Musk-type megabucks in the early 1900s. 

Lickety-spit to Washington DC because the conventionally performed Turandot ending by Franco Alfano, written after the composer died prematurely from throat cancer in 1924, had been rewritten.  

May talents came together for this performance. West Coast American composer Christopher Tin, two-time Grammy winner, lauded for gaming and film scores plus a series of evocative, narrative CDs, Susan Soon He Stanton, scriptwriter best known for Succession, Francesca Zambello, famously feisty Director of WNO was on manoeuvres.

She had spotted the opportunity presented by the expiry of the Turandot copyright after 100 years and boldly planted her flag to claim the high ground of an improved Turandot ending. Other production changes also better reflected the 21st-century zeitgeist rather than the early 20th. 

What’s that noise? Tooth-sucking across the planet from dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists? No case to answer. Not a note of Puccini has been altered. Calm down and carry on. The Alfano ending has always been problematic – he wrote two versions – and ends clunkily. A definitive revision was long overdue.

For those unfamiliar with Turandot – the 1990 World Cup crowd who never got past the Three Tenors’ Nessun Dorma – here is to be found a full cast list and synopsis.

To the heart of the matter. Is this new ending any good? Yes, it was brilliant, addressing many of Alfano’s inadequacies. Is it anything more than a Zambello gimmick? Yes, it is a work that will stay the course. 

I believe as co-productions spread out from Washington this version will stand as a better-constructed posthumous tribute to Puccini, who revealed in his correspondence that he couldn’t work out how to end the problematic piece. If I was writing about the legacy of a deceased politician I would be tempted to vacuously opine: “It’s what Giacomo would have wanted.”

Why problematic? The opera’s heroine is not the fabled ice-cold, murdering princess, fatally courted by a seemingly endless procession of lusting suitors. She is poor little Liu, the loyal servant girl, caring for the ailing, deposed King Timur and in love with his ghastly son, Calaf. He smiled on Liu once but is at first sight infatuated with Turandot. Purity versus bling. No contest. For speed dating Calaf knows no equal. For speed-beheading neither does Turandot.

Puccini’s score of Turandot ends abruptly at the death of Liu, in Act III. When Arturo Toscanini conducted the premiere of the opera in 1926 at La Scala Milan, as Puccini’s notes petered out on the page, the maestro stilled the orchestra, turned to his audience, and quietly announced: “Here the performance finished, because at this point the maestro died.” The La Scala patrons filed out silently.

Liu’s death is high drama. The much-put-upon servant girl grabs a knife and kills herself in case she discloses Calaf’s name to Turandot under torture. The Alfano ending moves along, ignoring this gloomy iceberg bobbing around in the proceedings – “nothing to see here, guv” – to a brief kiss between Turandot and Calaf. Her ice is miraculously melted – happy ending. Cursory treatment.

The Gambello/Tin/Stanton ending is more dramatically secure. There has been much hype about it being crafted to acknowledge the sensitivities of today’s audiences. Maybe. It’s just better. The conversion of Turandot from serial killer is no longer that “wham, bam, thank you mam” smooch.

The imperial dictator, portrayed as an infirm shambles, is dead. Time for a fresh start. When Calaf places his fate in Turandot’s hands by telling her his name she reciprocates by choosing the path of mercy rather than vengeance. It is revealed that not only was her ancestor Lo-u-Ling abused in the palace. Turandot had been brutally raped as a child.

Liu’s heroism and self-sacrifice (her death is Calaf’s selfish fault) are acknowledged. Turandot dictates that the spurned servant will be buried along with her own family’s revered ancestors and a new dawn rises for the people. Turandot is mercy, compassion, wisdom and strength.

This is not the expected outcome of many of this year’s elections around the globe. For those keen on a full explanation of the thinking behind the new ending and other production changes, there is an excellent presentation by Zambello and the creative team on the Works and Process YouTube channel. An hour well invested.

Tin’s score is exceptional. In his own words he aimed to avoid “creating second-rate Puccini, rather deliver first-rate Christopher Tin.” Tin is a master of musical embroidery and subtle Puccini references abound, connecting the final scene convincingly to what goes before. It is difficult to spot the join. 

First, the opening theme is threaded in, but inverted. A reprise of the Nessun Dorma aria triumphantly ends the work, as it does the Alfano version. Most importantly, Tin’s flowing musical voice chimes naturally with Puccini’s. 

Whereas Alfano always seems to me to have been a reluctant composer in a hurry, this happy ending uses the recapitulation to shape a more substantive conclusion to the storyline. As the writer of the complex Succession series, Stanton knows a thing or two about pulling narrative threads together.

Zambello’s introduction to Tin’s music was courtesy of her 12-year-old son’s interest in gaming. She was attracted by the sounds of “classical” music coming through his bedroom door as he zapped his way through, perhaps, Civilization Four

The musicality shone out as it did for me in 2019 when I was persuaded, against, I thought, my better judgement, to attend a concert – reviewed in Reaction – of his music at Cargengie Hall. Bowled over, I conned Tin into meeting for coffee the next day and subsequently, I spent some hours with him in his studio in California, fascinated by his mastery of modern production techniques. I claim no credit, as he had been thinking of the opera medium for some time, but I did point out early on that he was a natural. 

On Wednesday evening, I saw Kevin Put’s opera, The Hours at the Met. (Yes, quite a week. A new production of Orfeo ed Euridice at the Met on Thursday as well). Put’s music, like Tin’s is beautiful, evocative. Opera is becoming less confrontational for mainstream attendees. For any reader unfamiliar with Tin’s style, I recommend his 2022 work, The Lost Birds, with Voces 8 and the Royal Philharmonic Opera. Here’s a snatch

The sold-out Washington National, 2,634 seats, for the whole run is evidence that some modern operatic interpretations can touch the hearts of new audiences.  

One reservation. The supertitles need to be fleshed out. Turandot’s conversion seemed so abrupt that the Washington audience actually tittered behind their programs. It was a Kenneth Williams “stop messing about” moment. A tweak of the production here and there and better direction of Turandot would work the magic the new ending preserves. 

The setting was modern mythical rather than ancient. We found ourselves in a dictatorship characterised by crumbling industry, a hungry working class, and immigrants with shabby suitcases. Authority was symbolised by dancing soldiers clad in drab grey slashed with vibrant contrasting red crossed sashes. 

Centre stage was the blood-soaked auto-da-fé that had terminated the suits of many of Turandot’s admirers. Speed dating with no chance of a second dance at the palais.

Much guff has been talked about the dropping of the names of Ping, Pang and Pong, the regime’s three imperial ministers, because they are stereotypically racist. They perform a serious role, exemplifying creaking bureaucracy, attempting to head Calaf from the foolish enterprise of trying to answer Turandot’s three riddles and encouraging a “fresh start” for the country. 

Naming them as comedy turn competitors in a table tennis tournament never made sense to me, so casting them in the roles Puccini assigned to them, Chancellor, Major-domo and Head Chef, had been too long delayed. Their Act II aria in which they express longing for the peace of their homes as they tackle impossible piles of paperwork, became a sideswipe at post-Covid “let’s avoid the office” culture. 

In the Kennedy Center lobby was a strange “Touch Art” exhibition of opera paraphernalia spread out on a small table. Blazer-clad volunteer docents stood around, awkwardly bearing spears, looking decidedly uncomfortable. 

Others manned the counter. I was proudly shown a file the regime maintained on every aspirant for Turandot’s hand. The mocked-up Lompoc Police Department’s Citizen’s Crime/Incident Report was hilarious, requiring the disclosure of business school education and sporting a series of vehicle codes. “Did you travel from Persia to Lompoc in a horse and cart? Please state the name of the horse”. 

In Berlin, the Ricordi exhibition offered some fascinating insights into much more than the recording industry that helped transform Puccini and singers such as Enrico Caruso into the music industry’s first global brands. 

The final page of his Turandot score and the chaotic sketch scraps for the final scene were on display. God help any composer trying to make sense of the haphazard blizzard of quavers, semiquavers, scribbled notes, and emphatic scoring outs. 

The overarching message of the Berlin show was that, as the performing arts face the challenges of new runaway technologies, they can look optimistically to the past to understand how to spread the proceeds of change.

And in Washington, that WNO is increasingly perceived as a driving force for innovation, fuelled by the irrepressible Francesca Zambello.

And, most importantly, in California that Christopher Tin should be reflecting on this success. He has established his opera street cred and it’s time for him to commit to a full work. It is talent like his that will lead the next generation into opera houses around the world.

Write to us with your comments to be considered for publication at letters@reaction.life