Giving Puccini's Turandot the Finale it Deserves

Thursday, February 14, 2013 - 02:00 PM

The Lunar New Year began on Sunday, and the moon plans an important role in Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, one of the most popular Western operas with an Asian setting.

Early in Act I the people of Peking ask, “Why does the moon delay?” Their query and Puccini’s gossamer, iridescent music are exquisitely perverse: the people long for the moonrise because it will bring the Prince of Persia’s execution, and they compare the heavenly body to a “severed head”: "bloodless, bleak, / silent! Pale lover of the dead!” New Year wishes for health, abundance, and joy are very far off, indeed.

Turandot takes place in a storybook China known to Puccini and his librettists via plays by Friedrich Schiller and Carlo Gozzi, themselves likely drawn (at several removes) from a 12th-century Persian poem. In 1998, a company that optimistically styled itself “Opera on Original Site” produced a glitzy outdoor staging of Turandot in Beijing. Puccini’s opera, though, is no more authentically Chinese than Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte is Egyptian.

Recent articles in The Opera Quarterly (by Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai) and Opera (by Ken Smith) explore the complicated history of Turandot in its fictional country of origin. Though never outlawed, Turandot was not staged in China until 1990. Its depiction of Peking’s supposedly bloodthirsty populace, inhuman princess and, to quote Smith, reduction of “an imperial wedding to the level of a game show” were understandably found problematic. What’s more, according to Melvin and Cai, a 1995 performance of Turandot in Italian marked "the first time since 1949 that any non-Chinese opera was sung in its entirety in its original language; under the People's Republic, foreign opera had traditionally been translated into Chinese so ‘the people’ could understand it."

As it happens, Chinese and Western audiences have found themselves in full agreement about the most problematic aspect of Turandot: its ending. The facts are well known: Puccini died in 1924 before completing Turandot. Giulio Ricordi, his publisher, chose Franco Alfano to complete the opera based on Puccini’s sketches. Alfano’s first ending was rejected; his second attempt was accepted but cut by Arturo Toscanini. At the 1926 world premiere of Turandot at La Scala, Toscanini did not conduct Alfano’s music in any form: he famously set down his baton after the chorus’s lament for Liù. Historians disagree about Toscanini’s precise remarks on the occasion, and about whether he led subsequent performances of Turandot with Alfano’s ending.

Alfano’s completion in any form cloys. A surge of bombast sweeps away the memory of Liù’s suicide; Turandot’s transformation is poorly motivated (“hormonal,” as one critic scoffed); and the gaudy, Technicolor reprise of “Nessun dorma” as the curtain falls has neither rhyme nor reason. (Puccini’s sketches suggest that he did plan to cite the melody of “Nessun dorma” near the opera’s end, but probably without words, in the orchestra.) Furthermore, one of Puccini’s neighbors in the 1920s reported that the composer expressed his intent to write for Turandot “a finale like that of Tristan,” and that the music Puccini played for him ended pianissimo.

In 2008, the Chinese composer Hao Weiya wrote a new ending for Turandot with the blessing (and input) of the Puccini Foundation. He was especially keen to make Turandot’s flare of passion for Calaf more psychologically plausible. Following is an excerpt from Hao Weiya’s finale featuring Sylvie Valayre as Turandot and Franco Farina as Calaf.

The first decade of the 21st century had also brought a completion of Turandot by the late Luciano Berio (2002), decidedly more sombre than the ones by Alfano and Hao Weiya. You can listen to it on YouTube (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) or on a fine Decca recording led by Riccardo Chailly.

Which version of the Turandot finale do you prefer: Alfano’s, Berio’s, or Hao Weiya’s? Which living composer besides Hao Weiya do you think should take a crack at the Turandot finale? Kaija Saariaho is at the top of my list, not least because an opera that turns on two rapes (of Turandot’s ancestor Lou Lin, and of Turandot herself) seems to me to cry out for a woman’s perspective.

Happy New Year to all!

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Comments [7]

Kyr Arnsugr from grants pass USA

This is less jarring than Berio's ending, which is downright perverse in its un-Puccinian style, but the Alfano in its original, uncut version is still the best. The opera is dramatically problematic, and I doubt that Puccini himself could have made a "love scene" between these two cardboard figures completely persuasive over the corpse of the only recognizably human character in the opera. But, given that that is what he had to work with with, I think Alfano, using Puccini's sketches very skillfully, wrote some rapturously beautiful music, and that we may as well sit back and luxuriate in it. I certainly don't see anyone walking around nowadays who could do a better job. BTW, there exists on CD a fine recording of Alfano's full original ending, well-sung by Linda Kelm and Jon Fredric West and led by Christopher Keene in a live 1985 performance. To get it you have to buy the excellent recording on the SRO (Standing Room Only) label of Alfano's "Risurrezione" starring Magda Olivero. The "Turandot" isn't even listed on the box, but it's inside as a wonderful bonus. Enthusiastically recommended!

Mar. 14 2014 04:36 PM
Tim

The Turandot finale from Beejing is from 2010
not 2008

Mar. 15 2013 07:51 PM
Patrick from Wallington, NJ

Didn't Josephine Barstow record the full Alfano ending for a disc of opera finales?

Feb. 19 2013 02:09 PM
Celeste from Upstate NY

It's a great pity that Janet Maguire's finale remains unperformed.

Feb. 17 2013 09:26 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

So much of what one assumes to be the initial version of an artwork, the original intention of the creator of the artwork, is pure speculation. X-RAYS of Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci oil paintings have discovered other figures than the completed artwork represented. I have studied some of the original Beethoven manuscripts in facsimile as part of the Juilliard Literature and Materials courses and was mystified how often he nuanced his creative Muse. The Franco Alfano ending seems so abrupt in its shortened version. As Les Bernstein asserts, it would be appropriate to check out the full score of Alfano's finale. I have sung the full Wesendonck Lieder in two solo ALL-WAGNER concerts in the main hall of Carnegie Hall with the original piano accompaniment. FELIX MOTTL orchestrated the song cycle, Wagner having orchestrated only the Traume. The orchestral version is very effective and in no way takes away from Wagner's concept. BORIS GODUNOFF has been performed in Moussorsky's original stark version and in Rimsky-Korsakoff's and other more contemporary composers' so-called "historical" versions. His Pictures at an Exhibition has been performed in many versions authored by symphony conductors as Stokowski. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, an opera composer, "Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare" and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute. My websites where one may download, FREE, my singing in four solo concerts at the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall by going to "Recorded Selections"; www.WagnerOpera.com, www.ShakespeareOpera.com and www.RichardWagnerMusicDramaInstitute.com.
Roles that are represented in my singing to be heard on my websites are: Tristan, Siegfried, Goetterdaemmerung Siegfried, Lohengrin, Parsifal, Siegmund, Walther von Stolzing, Florestan, Federico and Eleazar.

Feb. 17 2013 09:16 AM
beachsiggy from NJ/NY Metro

I'm partial to Alfano's ending, and prefer to use the whole thing, not the cut down version one most often hears. I must admit, tho, the most jarring ending I have ever witnessed was a recent performance from the Bayerische Staatsoper, where they left it at the end of Puccini's music. Liu dies, or is subsumed into a bamboo tree (?!?), and Turandot and Calaf stroll off the scene arm in arm, while the curtain comes down. Very strange. And it left me aching to hear Alfano's ending. Go figure.

Feb. 16 2013 07:20 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

I don't think the Berio or the Hao Weiya endings are faithful to Puccini's style at all. Only Puccini could have completed "Turandot"; and it's one of the biggest regrets all opera lovers will always have. To my thinking, the problem is the story's ending: having us believe that Calaf can love Turandot, especially after hearing the pity and tear-inducing "Tu che di gel sei cinta" ( Act III. Rehearsal Number 27 in the Ricordi full score plate PR 117), which we know was Puccini's last complete writing. I adore this opera; and if I didn't know Alfano completed it and didn't know the story about Alfano being chosen to complete it, I'd have thought the Alfano ending was by Puccini, with the exception of one passage. I don't like the music accompanying Calaf's and Turandot's kiss. It sounds very forced to me, especially followed by the half note, eighth and sixteenth note "thumps" in the clarinets, bassons, contrabassoon trombones, timpani, bass drum, 'cellos, contrabasses and tam-tam strike. That occurs at bars 8, 7 and 6 before Act III. Rehearsal Number 39. I'd like to hear Alfano's complete ending, minus the cuts Toscanini made, which is the version we all know. I've never heard it, nor have I seen it in full or vocal score. As much as I venerate Toscanini, I'd like to judge for myself what Alfano's original completed "Turandot" version sounds like.

Feb. 16 2013 09:31 AM

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