The Last of the Great Italian Operas

by Wayne Lee Gay

Audience members in Milan, Italy, attending the world premiere of Turandot on the evening of April 25, 1926, knew full well they were viewing the end of one composer’s output; Puccini had been laid to rest some seventeen months earlier with the sort of pomp and national outpouring reserved in Italy for her greatest composers. Many of those in the audience at La Scala that night were also aware that they were seeing the work that certified the end of the brief and glorious era of operatic verismo, developed by Puccini and his cohorts thirty years earlier.
What no one could have known, on that auspicious night, was that they were also witnessing the premiere of what remains, nearly ninety years later, the final installment of the centuries-long tradition of Italian grand opera. The grand lineage that had begun early in the seventeenth century with Monteverdi, and that had extended through a parade of composers as singular and compelling as their finest creations—Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Mascagni, and Leoncavallo—came to an end early in the twentieth century with Turandot.

And, what an ending it was. Composers of Italian opera had always been deeply aware of their tradition, and had at the same time been ever eager to introduce new ideas and innovations. In Turandot, Puccini casts his net wide, reaching back as far as Ancient Greece for an understanding of the basic principles of drama, while at the same time demonstrating an acute awareness of the musical revolution taking place around him in Europe of the early twentieth century. Though he did not live to see this final inspiration come to life on the stage, Puccini had given the world a grand summary of centuries of operatic tradition, while unmistakably looking forward to a world in which opera would take on new and previously unimaginable forms.

Puccini had begun his career in an era dominated by the gargantuan mythological music dramas of Wagner on one hand and, on the other, the lurid tragedies of the then still-fresh verismo school, in which ordinary—indeed, marginal—characters were elevated in works such as Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana.
In the course of his career, Puccini moved decisively away from rural scenes and proletarian tragedy to explore historical and exotic settings ranging from Renaissance Italy (Gianni Schicchi) to Paris in the 1830s (La bohème) to California in the heady days of the Gold Rush (La fanciulla del West) to then-contemporary-but-hardly-modern Japan (Madama Butterfly).

While rising to international fame as the most successful operatic composer of his day Puccini stretched the very definition of verismo to encompass an astounding range of characters and situations. At the same time, he retained his devotion to colorful orchestration and the expansive, heart-wrenching melody typical of early verismo.

While the composer seemed intent on creating a series of successful, independent theatrical works, he unconsciously created an epic cycle of operas, united by a common theme of exploring the nature of the human female. Puccini’s detractors, looking only at the preponderance of suicidal or fatally disabled heroines, have sniffed at Puccini’s output, condemning it as misogynistic; yet the more insightful observer will notice the power and ability not only to transcend fate but to reshape their environment present in all of Puccini’s heroines. Far from despising his heroines (as some critics have charged) or allowing them to silently accept the decrees of a cruel, patriarchal world, Puccini clearly worshipped womankind and viewed females as the source of a mysterious redemptive power, usually—but not always—released in the course of self-sacrifice.

Puccini had moved away from his suicidal and terminally ill heroines with the invention of Minnie, the saloon girl who saves the day in his 1910 Wild West opera La fanciulla del West. In 1920, when the poetic team of Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni suggested, as a subject for operatic treatment, the tale of Turandot, the Chinese princess who demanded the execution of a stream of unsuccessful suitors, Puccini was immediately entranced by the opportunity to create an absolutely empowered female character, driven to control her own destiny.

Although tales of riddles and heroes are as old as Samson and Oedipus, the version specifically involving a Chinese princess named Turandot and a successful suitor named Calaf first appeared in the One Thousand and One Days, a French text published in 1710, purporting to be a translation of an Ancient Persian legend. Scholars regard this as an attempt to exploit the recent successful translation of the One Thousand and One Nights into modern European languages. Numerous versions of the tale of Turandot and Calaf emerged in the ensuing decades, including revisions in prose as well as dramatic adaptations; at least two operatic versions preceded Puccini’s. Puccini and his librettists relied most heavily on the commedia del arte version of eighteenth-century Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi; however, they were obviously also influenced by the free-wheeling translation of Gozzi’s play by German poet-philosopher Friedrich Schiller (whose Ode to Joy provided the text of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and whose other works inspired Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda and Luisa Miller). As much a perfectionist in the choice of words as he was with music, Puccini hovered over and harassed his librettists, resulting, after the dust cleared, in one of the most superbly crafted, complex, and yet immediately comprehensible opera librettos ever written.

Puccini and his collaborators gave their bloodthirsty princess a visionary motive in the form of her devotion to the memory of a murdered ancestress, which in turn gives her the spark of passion that allows her to capitulate and fall in love in the final scene. In matching her with a hero who has to be truly brave and worthy of the heroine’s love, Puccini clearly strives, here, toward a vision of a world in which masculine impetuosity and courage can unite in perfect complementarity with feminine resolve and steadfastness.

Puccini and his librettists, after much discussion and debate, opted for the risky strategy of including “masques,” or stock commedia del arte characters, in their operatic version of Turandot: Gozzi’s Pantalone, Tartaglia, Brighelli, and Truffaldino become, in the opera, the characters of Ping, Pang, and Pong, who serve as both commentators and comic relief. As a trio of lyric male voices, they provide a contrasting musical texture in the midst of the weighty grandeur that otherwise dominates Turandot.

The Chorus also plays a larger role in Turandot than in any of Puccini’s operas, or, for that matter, in almost any other major opera. The composer had displayed a magnificent gift for choral-orchestral synthesis in tantalizingly brief sections of La bohème, Tosca, and La fanciulla del West; in Turandot, the chorus constantly comments, reacts, and conveys the hysteria and fickleness of a panicked mob with music that is irresistibly grand and melodic.

While the setting and the very nature of the tale of Turandot are a far cry from the realism of early verismo, Puccini retained the single most significant aspect of verismo: the concept that the harmonies, melodies, and even the orchestration must always and immediately underline and express the emotion and action onstage. And, in Turandot, his palette of orchestral and harmonic colors has expanded far beyond his earlier scores. Although his overwhelmingly romantic music can be viewed as almost reactionary in the context of other compositions from the 1920s, his documented interest and study of the scores of Stravinsky, Debussy, and Schoenberg is here evident in the expressive use of dissonance and arresting orchestration.
As in Wagner’s operas and Puccini’s earlier scores (as well as many other operatic scores of the era), particular melodies are identified with specific characters, moods, and concepts. At the same time, Puccini indulges in old-fashioned exoticism in the form of borrowed authentic Chinese melodies. While this may seem anachronistic at times, his use of recognizably Chinese motifs contributes to the constant variety and irresistible momentum in the score. Indeed, the inspired craftsmanship of the score is such that a listener could almost sense the shape or, at the very least, the dramatic implications of the opera without knowing the words or seeing any of the staged action.

By far the most impressive dramatic masterstroke in Puccini’s Turandot is the inclusion of the slave girl Liu. While she does not appear in any previous version of the story, she is absolutely essential to the plot and underlying psychology of Puccini’s opera. Strongly echoing Puccini’s earlier suicidal and self-sacrificing heroines, Liu provides both a foil and, ultimately, a source of inspiration for Princess Turandot.

Despite numerous moments of doubt and even despair during the arduous four years of work on Turandot, by early 1924, with the end of work on the opera in sight, Puccini began to view the piece not only as a pinnacle of his own output but as a new sort of opera altogether. Although renowned and successful far beyond the dreams of his youth, he wrote, in describing Turandot, that “all the music I have written before now seems to me a farce.” The premiere of Turandot had been scheduled for La Scala’s 1925 spring season, with Arturo Toscanini slated to conduct; only the two final scenes remained unfinished when Puccini died in November, 1924, while undergoing treatment for a chronic throat ailment. Although composer Franco Alfano completed the opera on the basis of Puccini’s extensive sketches and instructions, Toscanini chose to present only those sections finished by Puccini himself—amounting to about nine-tenths of the opera—at its world premiere.

Toscanini ultimately rejected Alfano’s first attempt at completing the two final scenes, and Alfano responded with a tighter, shorter version of that section. This version, known as “Alfano 2,” has become a standard, expected part of productions of Turandot, including the current production by the Dallas Opera. Through the years, a few companies have opted for Alfano’s first, longer version, and, in 2001, Italian composer Luciano Berio created a new version of the ending, based on his reading of Puccini’s sketches and stated intentions. The Dallas Opera presented Berio’s version when it produced Turandot in 2003 but it has not supplanted the earlier versions.

Although it is impossible to second guess the innovations and changes Puccini might have introduced in the final section of the opera, had he lived, Alfano’s ending, in the shortened version, clearly accomplishes Puccini’s goal of a quick, triumphant close. Most importantly, it allows members of the audience to leave the theater well aware that they have witnessed a work that stands as the crowning achievement of Puccini’s life, as the logical conclusion of the verismo movement, and as a worthy final note in the long and glorious history of Italian grand opera.

Wayne Lee Gay teaches in the English department at the University of Texas at Arlington. The author of published fiction, poetry, and commentary, he is a past finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He currently covers classical music and opera for and contributes to Dallas Opera Playbill on a voluntary basis.

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