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Turandot is a work with its heart in two worlds. It is the most mature and accomplished of all Puccini's works, displaying brilliant orchestral and choral writing laced with harmonies that clearly belong to the twentieth-century. Yet, the lyrical, melodic Puccini that we know and love from La Boheme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly dominates as an extension and culmination of the nineteenth-century operatic tradition.
The name Turandot is a Persian word meaning 'Daughter of Turan' and the 1762 play by Carlo Gozzi is based on Persian tales taken from the collection One Thousand and One Days by Hezar Oyek Shab. Turan was that part of Central Asia, modern Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan which were once part of the Persian Empire.
Puccini began composing Turandot in 1921. By March 1924 he had completed the opera up to the final duet. He delayed completing the opera because he was dissatisfied with the script for the final duet. The delay proved tragic, when in October he was diagnosed with throat cancer. He died in November of complications following surgery.
At the premiere on April 25, 1926 at La Scala in Milan, Arturo Toscanini, who was Puccini's long-time collaborator, friend and conductor of this premiere, stopped the performance before the final duet, turned to the audience and said "here the opera finishes, because at this point the maestro died," and the premiere performance was concluded. When you hear Turandot, note that the last music Puccini composed is the statement "Liu' bonta, Liu' poesia", or "Liu' good one, Liu' poetry." The character Liu' is the last in a line of heroines from Manon Lescaut, to Mimi, to Tosca, Mini and Cio-Cio-San, and how poetic for her music to be the last written by this great master.
ACT II. Scene One. In their quarters, Ping, Pang and Pong lament their lives as ministers of death under Turandot's bloody reign. They pray that love will conquer her icy heart so peace can return. As the people gather to hear Turandot question the new challenger, the ministers are called back to harsh reality.
ACT II. Scene Two. Emperor Altoum offers Prince Calàf one final chance to give up his quest, but in vain. Turandot enters and tells the story of her ancestor Princess Lou-Ling - brutally slain by a conquering Prince. In revenge, Turandot has turned against all men determining that none shall ever possess her. She poses her first question: “What is born each night and dies each dawn?” – “Hope,” Calàf answers correctly.
Unnerved, Turandot continues: “What flickers red and warm like a flame, yet is not fire?” – “Blood,” replies Calàf. Shaken, Turandot delivers her final riddle: “What is like ice but burns?” An intense silence prevails until Calàf triumphantly cries his answer: “Turandot!” The ministers proclaim he has answered all three riddles correctly, and while the crowd gives thanks, the Princess begs her father not to abandon her to a stranger. The Emperor refuses to release her from her sacred oath. Calàf, however, offers Turandot a riddle of his own: “Tell me my name by dawn, and at dawn I shall die.”
ACT III. Late at night, in a palace garden, Calàf hears a proclamation: “On pain of death, no one shall sleep until the stranger's name is learned.” In the famous aria, Nessun Dorma (no one may sleep), the prince muses on the joy the morning will bring. The mob threatens Calàf in order to learn his name. Soldiers drag in Liù and Timur, who witnesses saw earlier in the day with the Prince. Horrified, Calàf tries to convince the mob that neither knows his secret. When Turandot appears, commanding the dazed Timur to speak, Liù cries out that she alone knows the stranger's identity. Through all the tortures of the guards she remains silent. Shaken by the resolve of this slave girl, Turandot asks why Liù would sacrifice herself in this way – “For love,” she replies; and this simple reply shakes Turandot. When the Princess signals the soldiers to intensify the torture, Liù snatches a dagger from one of them and kills herself. The grieving Timur and the crowd follow her body as it is carried away.*
Turandot remains alone to confront Calàf, who at length takes her in his arms, forcing her to kiss him. Knowing physical passion for the first time, Turandot weeps. The Prince, now sure of his victory, tells her his name. As the people hail the emperor, Turandot approaches his throne, announcing that the stranger's name is – Love.
*Here Puccini stopped composing, passing away a few short months afterwards.
Birgit Nilson, Franco Corelli, Renata Scotto, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli (cond) Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus. EMI.
Many great singers have attempted Puccini’s final masterpiece, but for more than a decade there was one pairing that stood above all the rest – Birgit Nilson and Franco Corelli. The myths of this legendary duo are numerous (including on-stage contests who could hold the final high ‘C’ of the riddle scene the longest, and Nilson attempting to drown out Corelli in the final duet) and I will confess that I had the thrill of a lifetime to actually hear them live two years before Corelli retired (for the second and final time). No recording can do either of these artists justice, but Nilson’s portrayal of the ice princess is chillingly thrilling, while Corelli IS prince Calaf – not to mention Renata Scotto who sings a Liu for the ages.
Yes, the Rome orchestra is kind of sloppy here and there – and can the brass ever play in tune? But Mo. Molinari-Pradelli understands Puccini’s opera so well, and these legendary performers are worth the $12.50 or so this recording will cost you.
Now, if you absolutely love Luciano Pavarotti singing Nessun dorma buy a Three Tenors disk. Once you’ve heard Corelli sing this role; well, you can guess how I feel.
How many times can one look at the Mona Lisa before it is hum drum? I can’t say because each time I look at this masterpiece, I see another marvel. That is the nature of great art – there is always something new to discover in it. So, absorb these two excerpts from Turandot so when you hear them in the opera, they’ll seem like old friends:
Signore ascola – Liu’s first act aria in which she begs Calaf not to attempt to answer Turandot’s riddles.
Tu che di gel sei cinta – Liu’s third act aria in which she admonishes Turandot for having closed her heart to love. This is the last aria Puccini ever wrote as he died before completing the opera.
For the full list of recommended recordings visit Maestro's Selection.
Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca, Italy on December 22, 1858. He came from a family of church organists, choirmasters and composers. As a teenager he served as an organist to the area churches and played the piano as entertainment at social events. In March 1876, Puccini walked over thirty kilometers to attend a performance of Verdi's latest opera success, Aida. This event changed his life and he decided that he would make opera his life's work.
In 1880 Puccini enrolled at the Milan Conservatory where he worked diligently at his music and received his diploma in 1883. In that same year he entered a competition for an unpublished one-act opera. His work, Le Villi, was not even given an honorable mention. However, it caught the attention of music publisher and promoter Giulio Ricordi and composer/librettist Arrigo Boito. They decided to fund a premiere production of the work. Ricordi later commissioned several of Puccini's most successful operas and his publishing house handled the printing rights for Puccini's music scores.
Twenty years separate the premieres of Giacomo Puccini's first opera, Le Villi from the premiere of his sixth opera, Madama Butterfly. In those twenty years, Puccini had become the acknowledged heir to the great Giuseppe Verdi as the leading composer of Italian opera, blazing a trail of success that moved opera into new realms of realism.
Puccini collaborated with several librettists on his works, including Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. His most famed operas include: Manon Lescaut (1893), La bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), Madama Butterfly (1904), La fanciulla del West (1810), Il Trittico—a collection of three one-act operas: Il tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi (1918), and Turandot (1926)—unfinished at the time of Puccini's death and later completed by Franco Alfano, one of Puccini's protégées.
Puccini was somewhat reclusive. He preferred his home in the country to hectic city life and enjoyed hunting and long walks through the countryside. He was a lifelong smoker, particularly of cigars, and in 1924 was diagnosed with throat cancer. He underwent surgery that left him no longer able to speak and died of a heart attack four days later on November 29, 1924 in Brussels.
No Language Barrier!
Enjoy the beauty of the original language and understand it all with English translations. The English text is projected on a screen above the stage for each opera. Easy to follow, and easy to understand every twist and turn of the plot!