's exquisite last opera
, not quite finished at his death on 29 November 1924. The final scenes were completed by Franco Alfano
from Puccini's sketches and it was premièred at La Scala
on 25 April 1926, with Toscanini
The first performance did not use Alfano's completion (which he and Toscanini had fought over, Toscanini insisting on more reverence for Puccini's sketches). The conductor stopped in the third act, and informed the audience "At this point the opera ends, because at this point the Master lay down his pen". There was also a political controversy, Mussolini being invited to the first night and insisting on the playing of the Fascist anthem Giovinezza. The virulently anti-Fascist Toscanini fought and won here also.
Turandot is from an Orientalist tragicomic play by Carlo Gozzi (1722-1806). Puccini's librettists were Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni. Other composers also used this play, principally Busoni, who did an opera of it a few years before, and Weber, who wrote an overture for it.
Princess Turandot is the daughter of Altoum, Emperor of China. Her ancestress Princess Lo-u-ling was seized and murdered by foreign invaders "thousands and thousands of years ago", and the cold-hearted Turandot has sworn an oath of vengeance against foreign men. The prince who claims her must answer three riddles, and if he fails, he must die. This she explains in the great Riddle Scene of the second act.
The opera begins with the chance meeting of Timur, the aged exiled king of Tartary, and his son Calaf, who is in disguise: the Unknown Prince. Timur is helped only his faithful servant girl Liù. After their joyful reunion they witness the execution of the Prince of Persia, Turandot's latest suitor.
Then Calaf catches sight of Turandot and immediately falls for her. He is such a berk. Ignoring the pleas of his frail father, who until moments before thought him dead, ignoring the impassioned pleading of Liù, who loves him because one day he smiled at her, ignoring the graphic descriptions of cruelty and torment by the three court officials Ping, Pang, and Pong, he rushes for the gong that announces his desire to compete for Turandot's hand.
Liù sings the heartbroken plea Signore, ascolta ("Lord, listen") to dissuade him and he reassures her with Non piangere, Liù ("Don't cry, Liù").
The second act begins with Ping, Pang, and Pong sighing over the badness of the days and wishing they could go back to their country retreats. Pong has a house in Honan, for example, with a little blue lake. This goes on interminably until you wish the executioner would stop cleaning the Prince of Persia's blood off his axe and go after them and toss the bodies in the little blue lake.
Finally the Emperor Altoum appears to oversee the contest, and says that an atrocious oath binds him to his daughter's deadly game, but tries to dissuade the Unknown Prince, who however is resolute. Turandot sings of her ancestress and her vow in In questa reggia ("In this kingdom"). Then follows the Riddle Scene. The Prince guesses the first; she asks him the second; he gets that too (obviously); and she asks him the third and hardest. Tension mounts. Droplets of sweat form on his brow. A woman in the crowd with a green hat faints with the suspense, okay I made that bit up.
He answers correctly and the crowd go wild. (My guess is they all hate the Princess, for reasons which will become apparent shortly.) She is horrified at the thought of being held to her vow, so he gives her one way out. If she can discover his name by morning, she wins, and he will die.
In the third act she gives an order that Nessun dorma ("None shall sleep") until his name is found. Anyone in Beijing who fails to find out the stranger's name will be put to death, is more or less the gist of her decree. (See above under "Hah hah, take that, ya frigid bitch".)
Someone noticed him talking to Timur and Liù. To protect her master Liù says that she alone knows the stranger's name. The servant girl tells the princess about love in the aria Tu che di gel sei cinta ("You who are girdled in ice"). She is seized to be put to torture, but she kills herself. At this point the master put down his pen.
Oh there's some cockamamy closure about Turandot melting with a kiss and them falling into each other's arms and stepping over Liù's dead body, but the reason Puccini spent so long and still died without completing this bit is obviously that he couldn't get it right. Neither of them is sympathetic at any point in the opera he wrote, and Alfano didn't succeed where Puccini failed.
But the arias are wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. It is one of the most beautiful of all operas, it really is. When has the plot ever mattered in an opera? The way Puccini conveys intense emotion is unequalled. I find it almost impossible to read the libretto, because I'm weeping so much through it.
One of the best Turandots ever was Dame Eva Turner: her Covent Garden recordings from the 1930s are to be treasured.