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ClassicsOnline Home » PUCCINI: Turandot
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Giacomo Puccini, christened with the forenames Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria in 1858, inherited with these names the long musical traditions of his family. Resident in Lucca, the earlier Giacomo Puccini, born there in 1712, served as organist at S Martino and directed the Cappella Palatina until his death in 1781, when he was succeeded by his son Antonio, born in 1747, who had assisted his father also at S Martino and, like his father, was a member of the distinguished Bologna Accademia Filarmonica. His son Domenico, born in 1772, directed the Cappella di Camera from 1806, after the disbanding of the earlier Cappella Palatina by Napoleons sister, Elise Baciocchi, who became Regent of Lucca in 1805. Domenico Puccini died suddenly in 1815 and was outlived by his father, who died in 1832. Domenico Puccinis son Michele, born in 1813, was taught by his grandfather Antonio and served in Lucca as a teacher and later director at the Istituto Musicale Pacini and as organist at S Martino. It was his son Giacomo who brought much wider fame to the family.
Earlier generations of the Puccini family had been largely concerned with church music, although they had also composed movements for dramatic Tasche, composite choral and instrumental works to mark the biennial elections in Lucca. Domenico, while continuing the tradition of church music and Tasche, also turned his fuller attention to opera, a form attempted only briefly by his son Michele. Family tradition suggested that Giacomo Puccini should follow family tradition in the restricted musical world of Lucca, but his ambitions were to turn into another direction, when he moved to Milan to pursue his operatic ambitions.
The position of organist at S Martino was generally regarded as the hereditary right of the Puccini family and in 1864, after his fathers death, it was decreed by the city fathers that Puccinis uncle Fortunato Magi, a pupil of Michele Puccini, should hold the position until Giacomo was old enough to assume it. His early studies were with Magi, before he found at the Istituto Musicale Pacini a more stimulating teacher in another of his fathers old pupils, Carlo Angeloni, who also inspired in his pupil an abiding interest in hunting and shooting. Puccini had been a chorister at S Martino and S Michele from the age of ten and began to undertake duties as an organist when he was fourteen. These last led him to write music for the organ, but it was a visit to Pisa in 1876 to attend a performance of Verdis Aida that finally changed the direction of his future career. In 1880 he completed his studies in Lucca, graduating with his Messa di Gloria. In the autumn of that year he began his three years of study at the Milan Conservatory.
In 1884 his opera Le Vili won some success, but it was with Manon Lescaut in 1893 that his reputation seemed finally established. This was followed by a succession of operas, La bohème in 1896, Tosca in 1900, Madama Butterfly in 1904, to be followed by La fanciulla del West in 1910, La rondine in 1917 and Il trittico the following year. These retain their central part in Italian operatic repertoire. His last opera, Turandot, in which he sought a new challenge, was unfinished at the time of his death in 1924, but enough had been written for the work to be completed by Franco Alfano and staged in 1926.
After Il trittico Puccini was casting round for a new subject and contemplated two English subjects, Sly, based on the Induction to Shakespeares The Taming of the Shrew, a subject that had drawn incidental music from Janáãek, and, subsequently, an opera from Wolf-Ferrari. He also considered the Dickens novel Oliver Twist, in which the ill-fated Nancy, murdered by her lover Bill Sykes, offered an appealing heroine. In the end, however, he turned to the more exotic Turandot, based on the eighteenth-century play by Carlo Gozzi, a counterblast to the latters contemporary Goldoni in its fantasy and its partial use of figures from the commedia dellarte. Gozzis play had already brought a translation by Schiller and incidental music by Weber, with a more recent and idiosyncratic operatic version of the play by Ferruccio Busoni. It was the librettist Giacosas successor as editor of the periodical La lettura, Renato Simoni, who suggested the subject of Turandot to Puccini, and the libretto was written by Simoni in collaboration with the playwright Giuseppe Adami.
In Madama Butterfly Puccini had drawn on Japan and America for thematic material. In Turandot he turned to the few Chinese sources apparently available to him, Chinese Music by J.A. van Aalst, and a musical box belonging to Baron Fassini, a sinophil who had spent some years at the Italian embassy in Beijing. These sources are fully discussed in the study of the opera by William Ashbrook and Harold Powers (Princeton Studies in Opera, 1991). Puccini worked on the opera from 1921 and by early 1924 had completed much of the work. At his death on 29th November that year he left sketches for the continuation of the opera, which was completed eventually by Franco Alfano, at Toscaninis suggestion, for a first performance at La Scala on 25th April 1926. In the completed version of Turandot Alfano is credited with the last duet and finale, further modified at the insistence of Toscanini and the publisher, Ricordi. Recent years have brought other reworkings of Puccinis original draft.
 The opera opens by the walls of the great city of Peking. To the right is a portico decorated with carved figures of monsters, unicorns and a phoenix, with pillars rising from the backs of huge tortoises. Below the portico a great gong is suspended, while on the ramparts the heads of victims are displayed. It is sunset and a crowd in the square listens to the words of a Mandarin announcing that Turandot will marry the man of royal lineage who can answer her three riddles; he who tries and fails will be beheaded. The Prince of Persia has failed the test and will die when the moon rises. The crowd disperses in excitement at the prospect of an execution, rushing towards the palace, only to be pushed roughly back by the Tartar guards. Among the people is the old man Timur, exiled King of Tartary, who falls, as his servant-girl Liù calls for help.  Prince Calaf runs up, recognising his father and helping him to his feet. Twelve executioners assistants make their way forward, as the crowd eagerly awaits the coming execution. Timur is delighted to have found his son again.  He tells the Prince how Liù has remained loyal to him, persuaded by a smile Calaf had once bestowed on her in the palace.  The crowd calls for the executioners sword to be sharpened and all is excitement.  Now they watch the sky, waiting for the moon, the sign of execution, as it rises.  The voices of children are heard.  The procession leading the young Prince of Persia to execution enters, now arousing pity in the people, who call on Turandot to grant pardon. She appears, and the people bow down, leaving only the Prince of Persia and Calaf standing. Turandot has no mercy and with a gesture rejects any appeal for clemency, and the procession moves off. Calaf, however, is dazzled by the sight of her beauty, as he and Timur, with Liù, are left alone.  Timur asks his son what he is doing, but Calaf is resolved to take his chance as a suitor. The sound of the execution is heard and Timur continues to try to dissuade his son from this enterprise.  He is about to sound the gong to proclaim his intention, when he is prevented by three masked figures, Ping, Pang and Pong, who warn him of the cruel fate that will be his.  A group of palace handmaidens lean down over the balustrade and call for silence, as Turandot sleeps.  Ping, Pang and Pong continue to try to dissuade Calaf  and the shadows of those who have died in pursuit of the Princess add their own urging. Calaf breaks away and is about to strike the gong, when the executioner appears above the rampart, holding the head of the Prince of Persia. Timur pleads further with his son.  Now Liù adds her own pleas, tearfully begging him to desist, for her sake and that of his father. She falls to the ground in tears.
 Calaf urges her not to weep and tells her to take Timur away with her into the country.  Timur begs him, for the last time, and is joined by Liù, Ping, Pang and Pong in his endeavour to save his son from certain death. Calaf is determined, and, breaking away, sounds the gong three times.
Act II, Scene 1
 In a great pavilion Ping, Pang and Pong are preparing for whatever may happen, either a wedding or a funeral.  They lament the fate of China, now saddened by Turandots behaviour. They sit and examine the scrolls for the numbers of victims.  Ping sings of his house in Honan, and all three would like to be away from the palace in their own parts of the countryside.  They lament the state of the world and the madness of lovers, recalling those who have died, princes from Samarkand, from India, from Burma and other countries.  They long for an end to their difficulties and those of the kingdom.  Trumpets are heard, heralding the start of a new trial for the hand of Turandot.
 In the square in front of the palace the crowd gradually gathers. In the centre is a great marble staircase leading upwards, to end under a triple arch. Mandarins arrive, dressed in blue and gold, and finally the Emperor.  He announces that he is bound by his oath to honour the compact he has made with Turandot. Calaf steps forward, ready to try his luck, in spite of the Emperors obvious reluctance to see more bloodshed.  The crowd honours the Emperor. A Mandarin steps forward and proclaims the royal decree. Turandot shall marry the one of royal lineage who can solve her three riddles; the unsuccessful will die. The voices of children are heard.
Act II, Scene 1 (cont.)
 Turandot, impassive as a golden statue, takes her place at the foot of the Imperial throne. She looks coldly at the Prince and recounts the reason for her vow, the fate of Princess Lou Ling, captured, tortured and put to death at the hands of a man. She will have her revenge on the suitors that come to woo her and never yield to a man. Calaf is defiant, ready to solve Turandots riddles.  The trumpets sound, and Turandot proceeds. Her first riddle is of something that in the night hovers, a shining phantom, soaring above the crowd, invoked by all, but vanishing at dawn to be reborn in every heart. Calaf declares that the answer is hope.  Her second riddle is of something that is aflame and yet then cold, which Calaf guesses is blood.  Turandot descends further down the stairs to pose her third riddle of ice given by fire, and fire that produces ice, a force that would make you free, but yet enslaves and makes you king. Calaf sees that the answer to this is Turandot.  The crowd applauds his success.  In anguish Turandot ascends the stairs again, demanding that her father, the Emperor, prevent her marriage to this stranger, but the Emperor has given his oath and will not hear her pleading. Calaf, however, wants Turandot burning with love.  He now offers his own riddle, his name, which she must find before morning; if she succeeds, he will die. Turandot assents and Calaf ascends the stairs towards the Emperor,  whose praises the people now sing.
Act III, Scene 1
 It is night in the palace gardens. To the right is a pavilion, with a richly embroidered curtain, the ante-chamber to Turandots quarters in the palace. Heralds announce the decree that none shall sleep on pain of death, as a search is made for the strangers name.  Calaf echoes the words, singing of love and of his name that none shall discover; at daybreak Turandot shall be his.  Ping, Pong and Pang emerge from the bushes, followed by other figures. They ask Calaf to say what he wants; if it is love, then one of them offers girls that he now leads forward; if it is riches, then they can offer gold and precious stones; if it is glory, he may escape to rule the Empire from afar. They fear for their own safety, since they face torture and death if the Princes name is not revealed. They end by threatening Calaf with their daggers. Shouting is heard, as soldiers drag in Timur and Liù, two who must know the Princes name.  Turandot appears, and they bow down to the ground, except for Ping, who comes forward to tell her that they now have the means to discover the Princes name. Calaf claims that Timur and Liù know nothing, but Liù steps forward and tells Turandot that she alone knows the strangers name and will keep it secret.  Calaf tries to protect her and on Turandots orders is bound, while Liù is tortured,  claiming love as the reason for her strength in resistance. She is happy to suffer for her beloved Prince, as the executioner is called for.  Eventually she agrees to answer the icy-hearted Princess, telling her that, as she herself dies, so Turandot will be conquered by love. She seizes a dagger from a soldier and stabs herself, staggering forward to fall dead at Calafs feet.  Timur hobbles forward and kneels down by her, begging her to open her eyes, as dawn approaches. He prophesies divine vengeance, and Liùs body is carried away to the awe of the crowd, seeking pardon for this violence. Timur follows, as the people lament Liùs fate.  Calaf and Turandot are left alone, she rigid as a statue and veiled. Calaf calls on this Princess of death and of ice to descend to earth. He rushes forward and tears off her veil, to Turandots anger; he may tear her veil but not touch her soul. The Prince takes Turandot in his arms, and draws her towards the pavilion, kissing her, but she draws away, now seeking his pity.  Calaf declares his love for her, as dawn breaks; he has conquered and her heart has melted.  For the first time now she sheds tears, telling him of her first fear of him.  Finally Calaf reveals to her his name.
 The scene is outside the palace. The Emperor sits enthroned at the head of a wide marble staircase. Around him are his courtiers, wise men and soldiers. The crowds gather below, singing praise to the Emperor. Turandot now tells her father that she knows the name of the stranger; his name is love. Calaf runs up to her, embracing her, while the crowd scatters flowers and rejoices at the happy outcome.
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