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Puccini’s Grandest Opera, “Turandot,” is Different

Posted by glennled on August 31, 2012

Emperor (upper center), Turandot (middle center), and Prince Calaf (lower right)

Yes, I’m an opera novice—I’ve seen only three other operas by Giacomo Puccini: La Boheme, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly (see my post of 31 May 2012). None of these prepared me for the showy spectacle of Turandot by the Seattle Opera which my wife and I attended on 5 August at McCaw Hall. And the three others set me up to expect Turandot to end in a very different way.

Speight Jenkins is my opposite. He’s been attending opera for more than 60 years and is General Director of the Seattle Opera. In the August edition of “Encore Arts Programs,” he writes that Turandot was a smash hit when it premiered at Teatro Alla Scala in Milan, Italy on 25 April 1026, sixteen months after Puccini’s death. It scored successes everywhere it was performed, but inexplicably, it disappeared from New York opera after 1930 until it was resurrected in 1961 by the Metropolitan Opera. Nine performances were given that season, evoking ovation after ovation, and “suddenly Turandot leapt onto the gold standard.” According to orchestra conductor Asher Fisch, Puccini operas are so popular that the composer accounts for 25 percent of all the operas produced today (see

Then in 1990, writes Jenkins, to celebrate the World Cup of soccer, Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras (Spaniards), and Luciano Pavarotti (Italian) created The Three Tenors. They first performed a concert together on 7 July that year at the ancient Baths of Caracalla in Rome. At the climax, Pavarotti’s sang the aria, “Nessun dorma,” from Act III of Turandot. This became his signature aria. That, coupled with the success of that concert and the tremendous sale of their recording, made the aria synonymous with opera. “Fifty years ago, ‘Nessun dorma’ was just another aria in the Puccini canon, not even one that most opera lovers could recognize,” writes Jenkins. “Now it is clearly the most well known aria in opera to those who have never set foot in an opera house.” See the following performances:

Timur, dethroned king of Tartary, mourns the death of Liu, a slave girl who commits suicide rather than betray Prince Calaf

Puccini died in December, 1924, before finishing Turandot. He left few notes about how he intended to end it. Others finished both the music and libretto. Hence, for me, the surprise ending.

Turandot, based on a Persian fairy tale and set in China, is the story of an icy, man-hating princess named Turandot (soprano). No man shall possess me, she declares, yet there is pressure from the emperor and the people for her to marry. So, if any man of royal blood can solve three riddles, she agrees to marry him. If a man tries and fails, he will be killed. By the time Prince Calaf (tenor) arrives, 40 suitors have been decapitated. He is confident, in love with her, and determined to succeed. He solves the riddles. She still resists, however, so he gives her a means of escape: if by the next dawn she cannot give his name, he will tell it to her and become her 41st victim. Lui, the self-effacing, sacrificing woman who is caretaker of Calaf’s father, is tortured during the night to make her reveal his name. Such is her love for Calaf that she dies rather than do so.  Dawn comes and Calaf tells Turandot his name. Meanwhile, she admits to being attracted to him, unlike any of the others, and in the climax, declares her love and agrees to marry him.  The emperor and the people rejoice!

A Puccini opera ends with a happy marriage? I would never have believed it. My friend John, one of my trumpet students and frequently an extra in numerous operas in Seattle, agrees. “If Puccini had written the ending,” writes John, “I am sure Prince Calaf would have realized his true love was Liu (the slave girl) and then killed Turandot and then killed himself. That’s an Italian ending.”

So, to me, Turandot is different. Not only is it a grand spectacle in which the heroine doesn’t die in a tragic ending, but musically, Puccini pushes the soprano and tenor toward the limits of the range of the human voice. The roles require a full, dramatic, powerful, heroic sound. I may be wrong, but it seems to me there also is more dissonance in the orchestra, which can be almost overpowering at times, and fewer melodies in the score. Here, Puccini is more akin to Wagner than in the other three Puccini operas I’ve attended.

Afterwards, my wife and I talked things over at an outdoor table at Ponti’s Seagood Grill along the Ship Canal near the Fremont Bridge. It’s a favorite restaurant of ours, one we seem to save for special occasions. The opera and dinner were her gifts to me to celebrate my recent birthday. What could be better?  😉

Performance photos are courtesy of the Seattle Opera. Please click on any picture to enlarge it.

2 Responses to “Puccini’s Grandest Opera, “Turandot,” is Different”

  1. oddpav said

    Thanks for a great blog post! Read more on Nessun dorma here:

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