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!