Hearing hearts in an unfinished opera

Though death cut short Puccini's final masterpiece, 'Turandot' shows his brilliance.

Classical Music

June 03, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

About eight months before his death in 1924, Giacomo Puccini made an unsettling prediction concerning the project he was working on -- an opera called "Turandot," about a Chinese princess who plays a wicked variation on "The Dating Game."

"My opera will be given incomplete," Puccini said, "and then someone will come onstage and say to the public, 'At this point the composer died.' "

On the night of April 25, 1926, at the world premiere of "Turandot" at Milan's famed La Scala, conductor Arturo Toscanini stopped the performance about midway through the third act, turned to the audience and said: "Here the opera ends, because at this point the Maestro died." And the curtain came down.

Puccini's swan song was performed again two nights later, this time with an ending fashioned by another composer, and has remained in the repertoire ever since. It has been especially prominent in recent years, thanks perhaps to a surge in the popularity of its big tenor aria, "Nessun dorma" (the traditional standing-O generator at concerts by "The Three Tenors"). But opinions about the opera's worth vary widely.

"Turandot," which the Baltimore Opera Company presents this month, is dismissed by some as high kitsch, an embarrassing case of over-the-top chinoiserie. Others find the plot silly (gee, imagine that -- an opera with a silly plot) or just unattractive. Still others consider the work fatally, irredeemably flawed, and believe only Puccini could have saved it with a more persuasive finale.

The rest of us thrill to every minute of the thing. Melodies, some of them based on authentic Chinese music, that can soar and pierce; harmonies that have remarkable richness and piquancy, even dissonance; an enormous amount of brilliant choral writing, unlike anything in other Puccini operas; sumptuous orchestration, punctuated by percussive effects, also unlike anything in other Puccini operas; and a story, adapted from an 18th-century Italian fairy-tale play, that has a delicious combination of fantasy, evil, sentiment, poignancy and dark humor.

The final moments

No question, the premature death of the composer hurt the opera. Not that the plot would have changed much; it was already pretty much set before he died.

In the denouement, Turandot, the ultimate man-hater, is so shaken by the self-sacrificing suicide of a slave girl for the love for a man that she begins to come out of her icy shell and fall for that same man, the Unknown Prince, Calaf.

Puccini had high aspirations for this final scene between Turandot and Calaf.

"It must be a great duet," he wrote to his librettists. "These two almost superhuman beings descend through love to the level of mankind, and this love must at the end take possession of the whole stage in a great orchestral peroration."

There's every reason to believe that Puccini would have come up with something indelible for that duet had he lived, something that would have helped the scared princess and the determined prince transcend the limitations of fairy tale and teach us something fresh about the power of love.

As it is, the death of the poor slave girl, Liu, does not generate nearly enough remorse from either Turandot and Calaf, who are equally to blame for it.

Liu has devoted herself to Calaf's blind father, Timur, a deposed king, while Calaf seems pretty much indifferent to the man. When Calaf asks her why she has been so loyal to his father, she answers, "Because one day you smiled at me." But Calaf has no time for spoony slave girls, because he is soon smitten by the enigmatic, sadistic Princess Turandot.

She forces would-be suitors to answer three riddles; when they can't (and none of them ever has), they get beheaded. Calaf, of course, aces the test, but agrees to forfeit his noggin anyway if Turandot can learn his name by the next dawn. This she attempts to do by torturing Liu, who takes her own life rather than snitch.

No sooner is Liu's body removed from the stage, with the pathetic old Timur trailing along, than Calaf is back at the business of pursuing Turandot. Liu who? He quickly gets a lip-lock on, and the princess suddenly discovers she has a heart after all. It's happy-ever-after time. But is anyone really the wiser, let alone less selfish?

The finale should provide a sense that the personal failings of Turandot and Calaf have been redeemed. Instead, the clincher is too hollow, too pat. One kiss and it's all over but the singing.

But is this shortcoming enough to keep the opera from being a masterpiece? Of course not. In an inspired performance, the audience will buy the chain of events, the strange nature of the assorted personalities. Better yet, if a production were to go back to the final scene as originally prepared by Puccini's stand-in, there might be an even better chance of rounding out the opera.

Another composer's ending

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