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Operapedia: Turandot 

Henry Stewart solves the riddles of Puccini’s final, unfinished masterpiece.

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First Performances

Turandot had its debut at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala on April 25, 1926—almost seventeen months after Puccini had died, leaving the work unfinished. He had struggled with the ending—the duet, between the suitor Calàf and the icy Turandot, after the servant Liù dies. Composer Franco Alfano was enlisted to complete the score, but conductor Arturo Toscanini, Puccini’s frequent collaborator and friend, was unsatisfied. At the premiere, he put down his baton where Puccini had finished composing, and the curtain fell. The published Alfano finale, used in subsequent performances, is typically performed today.

Time and Place

Puccini sounds super nineteenth-century, though he wrote at the turn of the twentieth. Turandot straddles the two eras. (Wozzeck, its polar opposite, by Alban Berg, had its premiere the year before!) “The style remains true to the composer’s nineteenth-century roots, but it is toughened and amplified by the assimilation of uncompromisingly modern elements,” according to The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. “The resulting synthesis commands a new range of expression.” The title character’s music is often sung by a Wagnerian, more accustomed than the average Puccinian to such melodic complexity.

 

Hit Tune

Calàf’s “Nessun dorma” has the dazed beauty of daybreak, as though musically half-dreamed. Jonas Kaufmann’s swarthy-toned power makes him an exceptional interpreter on record and in concert, unlike the tone-deaf tenor who sings it at the end of the Six Feet Under episode “Nobody Sleeps,” in which gay undertaker David bristles at but then accepts the cliché flamboyance of a gay set-designer’s funeral, which climaxes with “Nessun dorma.” In the aria, Calàf expresses confidence that the princess will not kill him but marry him. “Killing is an act of hatred, and how can the princess hate Calàf if she doesn’t even know him?” the A.V. Club explains. “David reaches a similar conclusion.” 
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Surprise Showstopper

Turandot is full of mysterious and heartrending characters—so you might not expect some of the most memorable to be the politically incorrect comic relief. But who forgets Ping, Pang and Pong, local ministers who try to protect Calàf from the death so many previous suitors have met? Their Act II trio, “Ola Pang,” features some of the opera’s most interesting writing, accessible while daringly flirting with complex rhythms and near-cacophony. It’s also troublingly orientalist. “The music that accompanies them brings to mind Charlie Chan,” Fred Plotkin reports at WQXR. They “seem like caricatures who are as authentically Chinese as chop suey and fortune cookies.”

The Basics

A princess challenges her suitors to solve three riddles or die. A prince gets them right, and, after considering killing him anyway, she marries him.
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© AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Something Completely Different

In Thomas Pynchon’s novel Bleeding Edge, grandparents argue whether Jussi Björling or Deanna Durbin sang “Nessun dorma” best. Their grandson interrupts: “All due respect … it’s Aretha Franklin.” In 1998, at the Grammys, she stepped in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti—“literally,” said presenter Sting, “at a moment’s notice.” Franklin sang it with orchestral accompaniment, mostly in English with some Italian. But she sang it like a soul singer, hitting all the notes— in fact, after the final “vincerò!,” she just keeps going up, like who’s gonna stop her, Puccini?—but doing something weirdly smoky and seductive with the line, practically inventing a new genre.
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Reactions

Hitler was still a nobody, in jail for the failed “Beer Hall Putsch” uprising and dictating Mein Kampf, when Puccini died, in 1924; Mussolini, however, had already been in power for two years. Puccini’s “late-career admiration for Mussolini’s policies has prompted a new generation of historians to see his operas—especially Turandot—through a political lens,” according to Slate. “The opera’s setting, in an ancient but rundown imperial capital, echoes Rome in the 1920s. The principal characters— a virile hero and a childless, possibly lesbian woman who must be conquered to restore the gender order— embodied fascist rhetoric.”

 

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In Pop Culture

In Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Tom Cruise stops the assassination of the Austrian chancellor from the flies above a performance of Turandot at the Vienna State Opera. The scene lasts ten minutes or so, featuring copious excerpts, as it builds (nodding to Hitchcock’s Man Who Knew Too Much) toward its climax—the high B of “Nessun dorma,” at which point at least one of several assassins will fire out of repurposed bass flutes. The filmmakers play freely with Puccini’s score, expensing the opera’s drama for the film’s action.
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Spoiler Alerts

Puccini’s sometime shooting-partner Renato Simoni, a critic and a scholar of the Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi, introduced Puccini to Gozzi’s 1762 commedia dell’arte Turandot (via an Italian translation of Friedrich Schiller’s German adaptation). Puccini “identified Turandot … as ‘the most normal and human play in Gozzi’s entire output,’” Conrad Wilson writes in Giacomo Puccini. “But the plot, he pointed out, would have to be simplified, and Turandot’s amorous passion—‘which has suffocated for so long beneath the ashes of her great pride’—to be heightened.” The former was mostly up to the librettists, the latter to Puccini!

 

The Performance We Wish We’d Seen

The Met’s current production is a sumptuous spectacle, and its premiere run in 1987 was the hottest ticket in town. But it had nothing on the Met’s first production, also the U.S. premiere, in November 1926. The Met “provided special programs bound in glazed paper,” OPERA NEWS reported in 1941, on the fifteenth anniversary. “On the stage, in addition to 120 members of the chorus, there were 120 from the chorus school; there were sixty boy choir singers, sixty ballet girls, thirty male dancers, thirty stage musicians, procession leaders and other supers to a total of 650, besides the eleven-star cast,” led by the Met’s then-biggest prima donna, Maria Jeritza, in the title role. spacer
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