Turandot OPERA COMMENTARY
MELTING THE ICE
Something is rotten in the state of ancient fairy-tale China. Just listen to the descending octaves that lead to painful punching chords in the opening moments of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, and you will be thrown into a world filled with suspense and horror. Soon you will be reeling in a pounding melody whose words urge an executioner to grind the blade sharp and start spurting blood. The Prince of Persia has failed to correctly answer Princess Turandot’s riddles and will soon forfeit his life.
The bloodthirstiness of the peasantry chanting that melody is suddenly overtaken by their mesmerized attention to the rising of the moon; then, when the doomed Persian Prince appears, they shift course again, moved to pity. The peasants (chorus) play a malleable part in this musical portrait of dysfunction; they are easily swayed, obedient to and in awe of the source of the kingdom’s illness, which is Princess Turandot herself. Her severe test with its death penalty for all suitors who fail has led to a blood-soaked and confused nation. In Utah Opera’s current production, the horror is embodied in Turandot’s whitened inhuman face, her body likewise weighed down by a regal white robe that seems to enfold the heads of all the men already executed.
Hers is a sick, benighted kingdom, in need of healing. The hero for this task will require wit to solve her riddles, and—to win her heart as well as her hand—patience to chart a course that will relieve her of her vengeful determination to never be possessed by a man. The journey of this opera is to reveal, in Puccini’s words, Turandot’s “amorous passion…smothered for so long beneath the ashes of great pride.” Only when her heart is transformed by love can the kingdom be set right again.
How unusual for Giacomo Puccini to offer an opera featuring the lives of rulers and nobles, all set in make-believe ancient times. Throughout his career he had been the most celebrated Italian composer of “verismo” operas that focused on the lives and emotions of everyday, “real” people.
Puccini did say he wanted to do something different as he began work on Turandot: “This time I am going ahead with unusual deliberation, dealing with a kind of work that is completely new to me, new as a subject, and new, perhaps, as an esthetic-musical research.”
And different this is from what he had created before. His previous operas famously featured a type of woman who is gentle, appealing, and already in love. Cio-Cio-San the penniless geisha, Mimi the bohemian seamstress, and Tosca the working singer are all capable of loving self-sacrifice, and each dies tragically. Turandot, by contrast, is first presented as pure, cold power, withholding even her voice in all of Act I. Once she does start singing in Act II, we hear a voice of Wagnerian range and power, unlike any of Puccini’s previous female protagonists. Moreover, she is the daughter of an emperor, has yet to experience romance at the beginning of Act I, and is alive at opera’s end. A great challenge in staging the opera is to make her likable and believably in love by that point.
Some elements in Turandot are still trademark Puccini: his gorgeous sense of melody and his lush orchestrations, for instance. It’s clear that his lifelong interest in gentle souls also led him to add the character Liù to the storyline (one he and his librettists adapted from an Italian translation of a German version of an Italian play adapted from an ancient Persian fairy tale!). Liù is a slave girl serving the blind, exiled father of the hero; she shows Turandot what a loving heart is and does. Before she sacrifices herself, Liù sings the kind of heart-rending melodies we expect from Puccini.
Woven into Liù’s melodies are authentic Chinese songs. Turandot is still an Italian opera, sung in the traditional style of the West, but Puccini researched Chinese musical effects and melodies and blended them into his Italian composition. He conversed about China with a friend, Baron Fassini, who had lived there several years, and he borrowed the Baron’s Chinese music box that played authentic folk tunes, eventually using some of these in “Signore, Ascolta” (Liù’s first aria), the children’s song, and the Imperial Hymn the chorus intones. Puccini had already incorporated pentatonic music to suggest the East in Madama Butterfly, but in Turandot, that sound suggesting the East seems more infused throughout the score.
Puccini also used Eastern percussion effects: there is a huge gong on stage, of course, which Prince Calàf strikes three times to declare his candidacy for Turandot’s trial, but there are also gongs, xylophones, and bells in the pit. All told, Turandot employs the largest orchestra Puccini ever called for, and the most massive chorus. There are 60 musicians in the orchestra; onstage there are nine principals, 57 choristers, 18 children choristers offstage and 10 children onstage, plus 12 non-singing men and six dancers.
Sadly, Puccini didn’t live to complete this ambitious opera. He died of heart failure following a 1924 operation for throat cancer, having finished only up to the music following Liù’s death in Act III. He left 36 pages of notes, as well as four rejected versions of text from his librettists for the final love duet, in which he wanted love to “explode.” What you will see is a final scene cobbled together from those notes for the opera’s 1926 premiere by composer Franco Alfano, at the request of conductor Arturo Toscanini. Puccini would certainly have wished to not only finish but also revise the opera after its premiere, as was his wont. We have neither the final word nor the final notes he might have composed for Turandot.
The final scenes created for Turandot move along quickly to the opera’s resolution—Calàf ’s kiss leads to incredible results. It’s easy to be shocked by the seeming velocity of change in Turandot and conclude Alfano’s work insufficient. Before rushing to that judgment, consider that Puccini plotted a believable progress in the melting of Turandot’s heart of ice. She must, inside, take special notice of the Prince who can match her, high note for high note. She must feel some crackling of her ice when he solves his way to the third riddle, answering correctly that what “seems like ice but burns like fire” is Turandot herself. Calàf gives her a moment to breathe and recover in the pain of thawing when he presents her the puzzle of discovering his name, and Liù warms up the whole palace when she dies for love—as Puccini planned, “her death could help soften the heart of the princess.” All this potential for climate change in Turandot’s heart precedes Calàf ’s great kiss, which brings Turandot, once hesitant, into sensual being.
When that happens, night is ended and a new day dawns for Turandot’s kingdom. She becomes fully human, and her kingdom is healed, once her heart can melt with passion.
Director of Education and Community Outreach