Verdi and Puccini both used their final operas, Falstaff and Turandot, to move in entirely new and unexpected directions. Verdi chose comedy. Falstaff, Shakespeare’s comedic/tragic figure, was a famously pompous knight, drawn from a mashup of The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV. His pomposity was pricked by a trio of smart women.
Puccini chose an oriental fable, Turandot, set in ancient China, featuring a domineering princess with an awkward attitude towards suitors. If they can’t answer the princess’ three riddles their heads are chopped off and displayed on stakes.
Verdi wrote Falstaff. The final fugue-like chorus of all the characters is his valedictory to the musical world. Puccini died of cancer before Turandot could be completed. We will never know his final intention, other than he had great difficulty in bringing Turandot to a satisfactory conclusion.
Franco Alfano, a Neapolitan composer who had recently been successful with his own Asian themed opera, La leggenda de Sakùntala, crafted the final scenes, drawing on Puccini’s sketched notes and, sensibly, weaving the opera’s hit number, Nessun Dorma into the closing chorus.
But this ending is not high drama Puccini-like – think Tosca and balconies – and always comes over as half-hearted in comparison with the uncompromising action that precedes it. The principal characters, Turandot and Prince Calaf, get away with, literal murder.
That they effectively forced the suicide of the faithful attendant, Liù, to prevent herself from disclosing Calaf’s identity to Turandot – which would spell death for him – is not properly referenced in the couple’s happy ending. This does not pass the Puccini smell test. He rarely hands out good deals to the morally suspect. Ask Scarpio.
Other endings have been rolled in front of audiences, none of which gathered much moss. The conductor Arturo Toscanini who, at the premiere of the work, laid down his baton after Liù’s third act aria with the words, “And here the Master laid down his baton,” cut lumps out of Alfano’s original lengthy ending. The composer was building his part, in Toscanini’s view.
Intriguingly, Grammy Award winning American composer, Christopher Tin, best known for his crossover album, Calling All Dawns, and a friend, tells me he has been commissioned by Washington Opera to write a new ending for a 2024 production of Turandot. Knowing his appetite for originality, expect an unexpected dramatic twist – Succession style.
These “insiderish” observations apart, Turandot is a terrific introduction for anyone approaching the operatic medium for the first time. This Royal Opera House (ROH) production dating back to 1984 – almost unbelievable – from director, Andrei Serban, and revival director for this version, Jack Furness, is particularly accessible.
The temptation of most directors – like Franco Zeffirelli in the New York Met’s much vaunted current production – is to go Oriental-gaga. Instead, Serban delivers a spare, elegant presentation with the focus on the main characters. Usually, the large chorus is employed as wandering about extras, selling oriental hats and bags, frying fish and peddling jewellery, while singing “off with his head” encouragement to the executioners.
With this approach the chorus often gets in the way. Serban’s trick is to locate them mostly backstage, on ranked balconies, reflecting the seating arrangement in the auditorium. This may reduce the opportunity for mobile spectacle, but it allows a more consistent projection of choral sound – no-one is singing sideways or towards the rear of the stage – and the principals are not immersed in an ocean of the western concept of exaggerated “oriental” display.
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And as there is a growing view that Turandot is culturally patronising, slimming down misconceptions of an ancient China that never existed anyway may be no bad thing.
The newcomer is presented with a narrative that is morally challenging, and relevant to the present day. Turandot is the daughter of Emperor Altoum, who has lost control of his wilful daughter. Princess Turandot has sworn an oath that no man shall possess her. She has been traumatised by the capture and rape of an ancestor. A full synopsis of the opera is available here.
Emperor Altoum, dad, has allowed her to run out of control. She has issued the three-riddle challenge to suitors, who come in increasing numbers from far and wide to mount assaults on her chaste citadel, in spite of the lack of success of predecessors, whose heads are prominently on display on long pikes around old Peking.
Turandot is commonly seen as a love story in another mythical time and place. I have happily acquiesced in that consensus until seeing this ROH production. There are strong undercurrents of contemporary Italian politics woven craftily into the libretto which stand out in sharp relief without the usual distracting razz-ma-tazz.
Puccini, while not opposing the rise of Mussolini, maintained a careful distance from the soon-to-be dictator. An honorary membership card for the Viareggio Fascist Party was sent to Puccini in 1923, but there is no evidence the composer became an active member.
Here come the subtle politics. Three characters in the opera, Ping, The Grand Chancellor, Pong, The Chief Cook and Pang, The General Purveyor, seem on first sight to be comic characters imported from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. They clown around, warning Calaf of impending doom and urging him to head home, avoiding Turandot’s wrath. Take these jewels and sod off. Don’t do the riddle thing.
But they are politically motivated and dismayed at Turandot’s domination of her father. To them the corruption of the emperor’s authority means the very existence of the regime is threatened. Emperor Altoum is about to lose the mandate of heaven.
In a long trio at the opening of Act II – O mondo, pieno di pazzi innamorati (Oh world, full of crazy lovers) – they foresee regime change if Turandot’s obsession continues unchallenged: “Farewell divine lineage”.
It would be an exaggeration to portray Puccini as being on a political mission, but this is at least a sly dig at the transition to absolute dictatorship underway in Italy while Turandot was being scored. Ping, Pong and Pang are much more than a distracting comedy sideshow. They are the sort of civil servants who couldn’t stand Bojo or Liz Truss. And they could spot an aspirational Mussolini at 1,000 paces.
There is more to this opera than immediately meets the romantic, or historically nostalgic, eye.
The Turandot score is remarkable. Leitmotifs abound – as in Wagner. The opera opens with a crashing warning of three descending chords. Oriental themes are copied from an old music box Puccini discovered. This is no myth. The first reading of the libretto was at the villa of Baron Fassini, a diplomat fascinated by chinoiserie, including a music box. The box played five Chinese melodies, three of which Puccini includes in Turandot.
Apart from boxing clever, Puccini drew on J.A. van Aalst’s printed collection of Chinese melodies published in 1884. The result is the creation of a totally innovative musical world. Audiences are treated to a new form of opera, far from the verismo tradition then in fashion.
American tenor, Russel Thomas, sang Calaf. He simply lacked the lung capacity to hammer Puccini’s score home. The apex of the work, the closing phrases of Nessun Dorma simply fizzled out. Very disappointing.
Ermonela Jaho, an Albanian soprano, delivered an exceptionally poignant Liù, tempered with exactly the right balance of longing for Calaf, a sense of unshakeable duty towards his father, the deposed King Timur, and a tragic rendering of her final aria when she decides suicide is the only way of keeping Calaf’s name secret.
Princess Turandot was Catherine Foster, an English soprano who has made hellcat roles a speciality. Elektra, Brünhillde and Turandot look pretty scary on any CV. Melting into the hero’s arms was, however, not really her thing and one got the impression that life in the Turandot/Calaf household would not turn out to be a bed of roses.
Sir Anthony Pappano, ROH’s Music Director, was in the pit. His command of the detail and nuances of this complex music is truly extraordinary, and he commands sufficient firepower in the ROH orchestra to deliver. Spellbinding from opening chord to final curtain.
The success of the action relied heavily on the choreographic skills of Kate Flatt. Her masked dancers offered a silent choral commentary on the unfolding action. Every movement of grace and violence faithfully reflected the music.
When Toscanini conducted the premiere of Turandot, the reception was polite, out of respect for the great Puccini, rather than ecstatic. The second performance, including the truncated Alfano ending, fared little better.
But over 100 years audiences have been increasingly captivated by this absorbing tale. Maybe a new ending from Christopher Tin will mark another Turandot milestone. Meantime the ROH’s Serban production is as good as it gets.
And another thing!
Last week I referenced OperaGlass Works’ fascinating upcoming film version of La traviata. Eagle eyed readers have emailed, pointing out that Verdi, not Puccini, composed La Traviata.
Of course he did! I have resolved to abandon all hallucinatory mushrooms and consider my knuckles well and truly rapped.
That Freudian slip does not, however, imply that OperaGlass Works will do anything other than deliver a stonkingly compelling artwork to rival their recent Turn of the Screw.
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