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Puccini and Turandot
The Origins of Turandot
April 25, 1926, La Scala Milan. The posthumous premiere of Puccini's final opera Turandot, two years after the composer's death. The maestro on the podium in none other than Arturo Toscanini, who has worked closely with Puccini and has already conducted the premieres of La boheme and La fanciulla del West. And then suddenly two thirds through the second act, at the moment in which the servant Liu stabs herself and dies, the maestro put his baton down and silenced the orchestra and the singers on stage. He turned to the audience and said: "the opera ends here because at this point the Maestro died." The following night, however, Toscanini conducted the opera as we know it today, with the final reconciliation between turandot and Calaf which follows Liu's suicide. And ever since, musicologists, musicians, singers and opera buffs alike have been arguing. How should Turandot end? What did Puccini actually have in mind?
It is impossible to know of course. Toscanini himself was the one who enlisted composer Franco Alfano to complete the opera following Puccini's own sketches, which is exactly what Alfano did. But Toscanini was not one hundred percent happy with the result and he insisted that Alfano will shorten his first version of the finale. Thus Alfano's original ending, longer in 109 bars (six minutes) that the version we are accustomed with, has never been heard until a performance in London several years ago. According the Frank Granville Barker, who attended that performance, the earlier version features "an orchestral outburst after Calaf kisses Turandot, a momentary arousal of the latter's old spirit when she learns her lover's name, thirty extra bars in her aria "Del primo pianto," an offstage women's chorus in the bridging music to the finale, and the lovers' voices soaring above the concluding chorus. This extra music is structurally important in making harmonic sense and dramatically important in making Turandot's change of character more psychologically plausible."
But the arguments never ceased. Some conductors still believe today that the opera should end with Liu's death. Most, however, end it with Alfano's short version ending. Can we say who at all is right?
What did Puccini think? On the one hand it seems that the Liu ending is very Puccinean in style. It is identical with the way Madama Butterfly ends and very close to the ending of Tosca and La boheme. The lovers almost never kiss when the curtain descends on Puccini's early operas. It is only in later works like Gianni Schicchi and La fanciulla del West in which the common tragic Puccini finale is transformed into with a matrimonial bliss. And in more than one way Liu is indeed the major character in the opera, she is the one whom we love and sympathize with, she is the one whom we care for, not the ice princess of the title. But had this been Puccini's intention, why did he name the opera Turandot to begin with, why sis he even choose such a subject knowing the nature of its finale? After reading Schiller's free adaptation of the Carlo Gozzi's play Turandot Puccini wrote that "it seems to me advisable to adhere closely to the story. Yesterday, I spoke with a foreign lady who told me about how this work was given in Germany, staged by Max Reinhardt in a very curios and original way. She will send for photographs of this production so we can see for ourselves what it's about. But, for myself, I'd suggest sticking to the subject. Simplify it as far as the number of acts is cornered and work to make it trim, effective and above all exalt Turandot's amorous passion which she has smothered for so long beneath the ashes of her great pride. In Reinhardt, Turandot was a tiny little woman, surrounded by very tall men, chosen purposely, big chairs, big furniture and this venomous little woman with a strange, hysteric heart... In short, I believe that Turandot is the most normal and most human of all Gozzi's works." And what about Liu? Not one work, no mere mention of her at this point. Yet listening to Puccini's music, there is no doubt whatsoever that his heart belongs to Liu and not to Turandot. So where did he want to end his opera? No one will ever know.
What we do know is that already the critics at the premiere were clearly divided between those who preferred the character of Liu to those who preferred Turandot. Gaetano Cesari (Il corriere della sera) wrote that "lyrically Liu might appear to be in the front line of the opera. Turandot, on the other hand, does not always succeed in convincing as the main dramatic force of the work. Andrea Della Corte (La stampa) on the other hand argued that "Turandot, well delineated in the libretto, even before the singular contest of wits begins, is effectively heralded... Her silent appearance to the throng, her gesture denying reprieve, underlined by grim instrumental sonorities summon one's attention to the protagonist." And this could very well suggest, as L. W. Haldeman noted, that "the romantic situation in Turandot is a duel, not a triangle. Lie never really rivals Turandot for Calaf's affections... If anything the two women are rivals for our, the listeners' affections."
Puccini the Opera Composer Like most 18th and 19th century composers, and in more than one way even more so than his peers, Puccini used to write for the box office. He wrote with very clear ideas about the public in his mind. He composed in order to create big hits. He believed that an opera exists only if the public likes it and when it does not, maybe the composer is to blame and thus should make some changes in order to appeal to the public, as he himself indeed did after the miserable failure of Madama Butterfly. Puccini wanted to please the audience, this was his first and foremost aim, an aim that today would be looked at as sheer commercial populism and probably be severely criticized. But this was the only way Puccini knew how to write. He was a man of the theatre, always very much involved with the creation of the libretti of his operas, and he was never really satisfied until the public embraced his works with all their hearts.
As a composer Puccini used to work by night, his days being devoted more pleasant pastimes as shooting or boating. He said in an interview that "Mozart and Salieri could compose amid the greatest tumult and hilarity, but I cannot do that. I have to be absolutely alone and undisturbed. Once the priest of the neighboring village disturbed me after I had been working furiously on La boheme for five weeks. He broke in upon my solitude fearing for the salvation of my soul; but I assure you he will never do so again. I said to him, 'If you ever disturb me again while I am composing, I swear to you I shall desert the Catholic Church and become and Protestant.' I knew from conversations I had had from him that he fully believed that no worse calamity could befall me. Furthermore I added to that dire threat, "there are other ways of communing with God besides attending Mass and Confession. When I am composing I feel that He is close to me and approves of what I am doing.' The fellow looked so puzzled I could hardly keep from laughing in his face. He made the sign of the cross with great vehemence, shouting, 'I am making for you the sign of the cross in order to exorcise the demon that compelled you to say that!'"
As a student Puccini experienced hardships probably similar to those of the four Bohemians in La boheme. Reminiscing later in his life about his student days, he recalled that "Ponchielli and Bazzini, who taught me composition, thought I had talent and my first work, a Sinfonia Capriccio, was praised in the newspaper but I found cold comfort in that. I longed for all those things that money can buy and in which I was so utterly lacking. During those years at the conservatory I suffered so from poverty, cold, hunger and misery that it embittered my soul and soured my nature. I attribute the morbid fascination that La Tosca had for me to those days of penury. My diet was bread, beans and herrings, and I was sometimes so cold that I actually burned the manuscripts of my early attempts at composition to keep warm, just as Rodolfo does in La boheme." In fact La boheme is in more than one way quite an autobiographical opus. Fragments of Puccini's Capriccio Sinfonico written as a student can be detected in the opera itself. And he later told Illica, the librettist "to construct the first setting in accordance with my description of that miserable room in which I lived when I was a student at the Milan Conservatory. Every time I hear La Boheme I see in my mind's eye that bleak vista - those sordid chimney tops and all the squalor that was the bane of my youth."
Puccini's Tragic Heroines
Giacomo Puccini wrote one dozen operas and the titles of seven bear the name of the leading heroine of the respective opera. Most of Puccini's heroines are similar one to the other: they are all beautiful women who love with all their heart. And it seems that for this almost unconditional love Puccini punishes them severely: his heroines always die at the end of the opera. Tosca, the Roman diva, love the painter Cavardossi and is even willing to kill for him but all in vain. At the end of the opera she has to jump to her death. Cio Cio San, the petite and young geisha from Nagasaki known as Madama Butterfly, finds herself with a little boy and without a husband. And when the husband does return three years later, Butterfly bids her child farewell and kills herself. It is better to die with honor than to live without it. And Liu in Turandot also takes her own life in order to save her own honor and even more so the honor and the life of the man she loves.
Other heroines die too. Mimi, who loves Rodolfo with all her heart in La Boheme, does not kill herself but her frail health brings her death as the curtain descends. Manon Lescaut, in the opera that bears her name, ends her life alone, lost and abandoned, a miserable solitary death which is quite remote from the gaiety of her youth. Angelica kills herself once she realizes that the society around her will never forgive her the birth of her son outside marriage. And in Il tabaro Michele kills the lover of his young wife Giorgetta who has to watch the body thrown at her face although she herself remains alive. Puccini, so it seems, enjoyed ending his operas with a tear jerking death scene.
Why do all these heroines have to die? Why can't Liu live? Why can't Mimi and Rodolfo live happily ever after? Why is Butterfly not ready to fight for what she justifiably deserves and confront Pinkerton? The answer, as absurd as it might sound, is the fact that all these women are very powerful and each and every one knows exactly what she wants and how she can achieve it. Moreover, each has self respect and none is willing to give up ideals merely for an easier life.
Puccini did not write only tragedies. In the social satire Gianni Schicchi, Lauretta does manage to win the man she loves although she has at one point to threaten that if she will not be allowed to marry her Rinuccio she will to throw herself into the river. In Turandot the protagonist seems like a much more stubborn woman than the other Puccini heroines but at the end of the opera a kiss of love melts the iceberg in her heart and the finale is that of marriage and happiness in spite of the fact that the death of Liu and the many princes who failed to answer Turandot's riddles, looms over the grandiose and somewhat uncharacteristic finale. And in La fanciulla del West Puccini presents a new heroine, who is ideal for the male American society which provided the setting for this very American almost Hollywood style opera. But Minnie, who does all she can in order to get the man she loves and manages to do so, is different from the all other Puccini ladies. Because the average Puccini heroine is a woman who loves dearly and for that is punished with the ultimate penalty. Puccini's message, time after time, is that the only reward for sincere, true and deep love is death.
The Ice Princess So how does Turandot fit within this gallery of tragic heroines who pay with their own life for their unconditional love? She does not. There is not one other character close to Turandot in the entire Puccini canon. Minnie in La fanciulla del West is an admirable courageous woman. Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi is adorable in her stubborn naivete and both manage to show that love can win the day. But Turandot? She is someone from a totally different sphere. Turandot is a princess living in a cubical of glass which suits her to perfection. She does not want to get out of her ivory castle and mingle with other human beings in general, men in particular. But Turandot is a ravishing beauty and princess from far and near wish to marry her. She is aware of her beauty and the power it gives her and so she decides she would marry only a worthy suitor. And in order to become worthy, any courting prince and potential husband should answer three riddles. But with contrast to Shakespeare's Portia in The Merchant of Venice, who also puts similar riddles in front of all her suitors, Turandot dose not let those who fail, return to their homelands. Rather she kills them. The prince who does not answer all three riddles has only one future: "off with his head." But princes continue to come and play this Russian roulette with this mythological Loretta Bobbit. They are transfixed by her beauty. And after each new suitor the pile of skulls outside the palace grows higher.
Turandot was not capable of falling in love. She does not want to. She has only one wish and that is to punish all men because long ago her ancestress was ravished by enemy soldiers who conquered the city and ruined the palace.
Turandot has set to a game in which there are no winners. The men die and she remains in her solitude. But Turandot does not play a fair game, far from it. When at long last a prince arrives and does manage to solve her three riddles, she begs her father to spare her the nuptial rites. But the emperor, who has long been repelled by the skulls outside his domain will not help. Turandot set the rules of the game and she must abide by them.
Salvation, in a way, arrives from the prince himself. He will grant Turandot a second chance. He will continue to play her own game, the game of chance and riddles. If Turandot would succeed in revealing his name by dawn, he will gladly mount the scaffold, if not she will accompany him to the bridal alter. Turandot agrees. "No one shall sleep in Beijin," she decrees, until the name of the foreigner is revealed. But the only person who does know the name, Liu, kills herself before Turandot's henchmen will tear the secret out off her body and soul.
At the end it is the prince himself, Calaf, who reveals his name to Turandot. But he does it only after he managed to shatter the glass menagerie she built as a shell, only once he has managed to cut through the ice and melt it. Once Calaf kisses Turandot passionately, once her lips melt within his, once she acknowledges that she does love him, Calaf has no more fear. At the finale Turandot summons one and all to announce that she has indeed revealed the name of the foreign prince, his name is Love. The kiss is the climax of the finale. It is the moment in which the iceberg becomes consumed with ravishing desire. And in that way it is similar to many other operatic kisses, most notable the one in Parsifal. Like the naive youth who is kissed for the first time in his life in Wagner's final opera, so does the naive princess Turandot learn to know her real true self once she is kissed for the first time. And musically and dramatically alike the kiss scene in both these operas is quite similar as is usual in the world of opera where sex is a very favorite topic to talks about on stage but not necessarily to actually experience it. The kiss is the most passionate moment of love making between a man and a woman in opera, it is the very moment in which rapture reigns supreme and love and lust in more than one way become one. The kiss is the way of no return for better (as is the case in Turandot), or for worse as is the case, for example, in another Puccini masterpiece, Madama Butterfly.