Background notes on Turandot

Many of our readers know that my wife, Joanne Paterson, BMus, BA, MA in Musicology, MScILS, helps Opera Lyra in a variety of ways. This includes writing the background notes for the “house programmes” distributed to patrons at our operas. She currently works as a librarian in the digital office at Library and Archives Canada. Here is a sneak preview of her notes for Turandot.

Today’s music students have an astonishing array of research tools at their fingertips. With the click of a button one can view digitized scores at International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP), listen to old recordings on the Virtual Gramophone, and download complete opera recordings in minutes from Naxos Classics Online. A search of YouTube using the keyword Turandot, for example, yields about five thousand, mostly relevant, hits of excerpts from the opera. Almost instantly one has a sense of the work, the powerful music, and available recordings. But in the spring of 1919, when Puccini began to consider an exotic subject for his next opera, sound recordings were not so readily available. Music enthusiasts had turned away from Edison’s awkward cylinders and were embracing the newer, more practical Berliner flat disc. Unlike today’s researcher, Puccini did not have a video-sharing website as a resource, but merely a music box belonging to his friend Baron Fassani and some printed folk music supplied by the publisher Ricordi.

At the age of 60, after launching a successful run of Il trittico, Puccini was ready to tackle a new project. So, after some dalliance with various, but ultimately rejected subjects, librettist-duo Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni suggested the fairy-tale drama, Turandotte (1762) by Carlo Gozzi as a basis for a new work. Adami owned a copy of Maffei’s translation of Schiller’s adaptation of the original play —and people often wonder why an opera is so different from the original text?!— and lent it to Puccini to read on the train home. Immediately taken with the subject matter, Puccini soon began to craft the shape of the opera.

His instructions to the librettists were to simplify and streamline the play. The exotic setting was to be maintained, as was the device of the riddles, and of course the principessa Turandot remains, though she is a much harder, more intense princess than Gozzi’s conception. Moreover, Puccini envisioned a new character for the libretto. In a letter to Simoni, he wrote “Have you considered well the new conception of the piccola donna?” This “little woman” evolves into the slave girl Liù, who becomes pivotal to the story’s outcome. In Liù we see the archetypal fragile Puccini heroine, one who is doomed to love too well. It is her act of sacrifice, her devotion to Calàf, that begins to melt the heart of the icy princess. Some critics argue that Liù’s execution was the stumbling block that Puccini could not overcome, that Turandot is too cruel for an audience to sympathize with, thus leaving the story unbalanced and markedly difficult to complete satisfactorily. Others, however, argue that the outcome is inevitable and makes perfect sense. In her aria, “Del mio primo pianto”, Turandot tells us that Calàf’s kiss has deeply affected her, and when Calàf offers his name, and effectively puts his life in her hands, the princess capitulates. Her surrender is as passionate as was her previous cruelty. In a world where a belief in love at first sight is mandatory, in which Liù falls for a princely smile, Puccini’s characters are motivated by fervent love rather than logic, a characteristic stereotypical in operas of the giovane scuola.

Another hallmark of Puccini’s style is the use of thematic reminiscence. In Turandot, he sparingly employs several authentic Chinese themes which also double as reminiscence motifs. One striking example of this can be found underpinning the portrayal of the masks, Ping, Pang, and Pong, who make their first appearance to the tune of China’s Imperial Hymn. Later, when they attempt to prevent Calàf from pursuing Turandot, they rush about and restrain him to fragments of this same hymn. Another example is his use of the Chinese folksong ‘Moo-Lee-Vha’, which represents Turandot as high-born official. The children’s chorus announces her coming with this music, hard on the heels of the final shout of the executioner’s name; it is then also sounded when the Mandarin reads the royal decree and later when Calàf answers the riddles and the gathered crowds celebrate his victory.

But this work is not a mere hotch-potch of borrowed tunes. Like silken threads, motifs are woven and varied to become colourful tapestries, the building blocks of large-scale formal musical structures. Modern compositional techniques, including bitonality, and whole-tone and pentatonic scales, are effectively used to evoke the exotic microcosm of place. Contemporary method combines readily with typical Puccinian traits of stepwise sequences, parallel dissonances and the doubling of melodies with bass lines. Puccini’s score illustrates his adept skill in contemporary composition and brilliant orchestration.

When Puccini— the undisputed master of “great sorrows in little souls” —died of heart failure following surgery for throat cancer, 29 November 1924, his final work was incomplete. Puccini left 36 pages of notes and sketches, and at Toscanini’s suggestion the thankless task of finishing the opera for performance was given to composer Franco Alfano. Though his skill was no match for Puccini’s, he endeavored to be faithful to the musico-dramatic clues that Puccini left. But 17 months later at the première, Toscanini placed his baton on the podium after the death of Liù, the last music composed by Puccini, and said aloud, “Qui finisce l’opera, perché a questo punto il maestro è morto” (Here the opera ends, because at this point the maestro is dead.)
The complex germination of Turandot had lasted over four years and despite lacking a completed final scene, this remarkable opera stands as the culmination of Puccini’s work, confirming Puccini’s place as the most outstanding proponent of Italian opera of his generation.


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