Skip to page content

The 19th-century aphorist Charles Caleb Colton once said that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," which certainly holds true in the case of Puccini's Turandot. But, of course, Puccini did not merely imitate. He took the subject, made it his own, and from it created his final masterpiece.

As with several of his other operas, Puccini first encountered Turandot in the theater, in a staging of 18th-century Italian dramatist Carlo Gozzi's play. The composer was in Berlin, where he attended the celebrated director Max Reinhardt's production of the play at the Deutsches Theater, with incidental music by Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924).

Memories of that production lingered with Puccini, for in 1919, Turandot came up as a possibility for a new opera during a meeting of the composer and his collaborators. (Busoni actually beat Puccini to using the subject for an opera, reworking his incidental music in 1917, though Busoni's version is only occasionally revived.) Other proposed subjects included Sly, based on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (which was eventually taken up by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari and staged at La Scala in 1927), a new play by David Belasco (the author of the plays on which Madama Butterfly and La fanciulla del West were based), or an adaptation of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. But Giuseppe Adami, who had already worked with Puccini as the librettist on La rondine and Il tabarro, and Renato Simoni, a Gozzi scholar and former editor of the Corriere della sera, Italy's equivalent of The New York Times, steered Puccini toward Turandot.

Gozzi's Chinese fairy tale offered Puccini an exotic setting and a chance to pepper his score with some "ethnic" music for local color, something he always enjoyed doing (especially in Madama Butterfly, which is rife with Europeanized Japanese tunes). The story unfolds in Imperial China, and pits the Tartar Prince Calaf against the beautiful but cruel Princess Turandot, daughter of the Chinese Emperor. Calaf has to answer three riddles in order to win her, but when he does, the Princess panics and tries to get out of having to marry him. He tells her that if she can figure out his name by daybreak, he'll release her from the bargain, so she tortures Liù, his father's slave girl. Liù commits suicide rather than reveal the Prince's name, and Turandot finally succumbs to the Prince, declaring that his name is "love."

By August 1920, the composer had a draft of the scenario in hand, and early the following year he began working on the score. He consulted widely disparate sources for Chinese music, including a Chinese music box and a collection of Chinese folk tunes sent to him by his publisher, Casa Ricordi. The music box theme plays an especially important function in the opera. We first hear it near the beginning of Act I, in the boys' chorus "Là, sui monti dell'est," which heralds the appearance of the moon and precedes the entrance of Turandot, who arrives to witness the execution of her latest victim. Puccini returns to the theme several times, always associating it with the Princess. Later in the act, after the execution, Ping, Pang, and Pong, three royal servants, enter to fragmented bits of the Chinese Imperial Hymn, and the fanfare heralding the Emperor's entry in Act II, Scene Two, is a quote from the song "I am Chu Chin Chow of China" from Frederick Norton's musical Chu Chin Chow, which Puccini had seen in London in 1919. Puccini also uses his orchestra to contribute to the overall exotic atmosphere, both in the grand public scenes, with their weighty, often imposing instrumentation, or in the "lighter" moments, such as the opening scene of Act II for Ping, Pang, and Pong, with its transparent orchestration and nimble vocal writing.

Of course, Puccini's lyrical gift is abundantly in evidence throughout Turandot. Each principal character gets a memorable aria. In Act I, we hear Liù's "Signore, ascolta," as she begs Calaf not to try to answer the riddles (she's just watched the last man to try lose his head). Here, Puccini's pentatonic writing not only gives the music an oriental cast, but it also serves to heighten the expression. In Act II, we hear Turandot's "In questa reggia," a narrative explaining why she has her suitors killed, with its hard, uncomfortable vocal line emphasizing the emotionally impenetrable Princess' aloofness. Act III contains, in Calaf's aria "Nessun dorma," a true Puccini gem, a number whose outpouring of passionate, noble lyricism is unmatched elsewhere in the composer's output.

Unfortunately, Puccini did not live to finish Turandot. He died of complications from radium treatment for throat cancer, leaving the final pages of the opera incomplete, with only a few, barely legible sketches to hint at what might have been. The composer had difficulty with the denouement after Liù's suicide (his score breaks off after the procession bearing her body away) - it's hard to believe that Calaf would keep pursuing Turandot after her executioners, acting on her orders, had brought about the death of a close companion. The unhappy task of overcoming this dramatic difficulty was left to Franco Alfano, a 50-year-old composer with a somewhat successful career in Italian opera houses. (Puccini's son Tonio had rejected Riccardo Zandonai, composer of Francesca da Rimini, worried that he was too famous.) Alfano's conclusion to Turandot was shortened before publication, and it is this shortened version that is usually heard in the opera house today. Arturo Toscanini, who conducted the premiere of the opera at La Scala on April 25, 1926, laid down his baton after Liù's death, at the point where Puccini's music ended. For tonight's performance John Mauceri has restored passages from Alfano's original, longer ending to conclude Puccini's final operatic masterwork, one that shows a composer still at the absolute peak of his creative powers.

-- John Mangum is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Program Designer/Annotator.