Thursday, September 20, 2012

Opera Fever, Puccini’s Turandot

In his impassioned, prolific and sometimes desperate correspondence concerning his last opera Turandot, Giacomo Puccini gives us a glimpse into the unlikely creation of a masterwork and the challenges and rewards that are part of the end of life and the demands of art.
courtesy of Wikipedia
As he traveled from city to city to oversee the productions of his Il Trittico he had also begun to consider proposals for a new opera. After rejecting a Shakespearean topic and Dickens’ Oliver Twist, he met his librettist Guiseppe Adami for lunch in Milan where there was broached the idea of Carlo Gozzi’s Turandot. Despite that fact that it had been staged at least seven times before, Puccini knew the work well and told Adami to contact Renato Simone and begin the libretto. What follows is a detailed record of an artist at the height of his fame. He races from Vienna, to Milan to Rome and London, New York and Paris arranging and negotiating - all the while being feted and praised. There is the usual mixture of gambling, (he loses 10,000 lire in Monte Carlo) flirtation with younger women, conferences with Mussolini and the buying of new property as the opera grows act by act. Slowly the theme of death and age takes up a larger and larger part of his life as relatives, siblings, fellow composers all begin to pass away. Increasingly the composer reflects on age and the passage of time as he reaches the milestone of his sixtieth year. It is in this context, on the threshold of being told that he has cancer, that he makes his way through the roller coaster ride of trying to complete his magnum opus. In comments to friends Puccini refers to “Needing to be gripped by the fever“ to finish. The composer it seems needed to be in a fit of an elusive and unpredictable inspiration to create the grand melodies for which he is so justly revered. What followed was a five year struggle, 1919-1924, in which he went from one strategy to another, with no end in sight. He constantly contemplated abandoning the project and then a burst of inspiration would revive his flagging spirits. He rightly predicted in his final year that he would be composing it from the tomb. He would never live to write its conclusion.
courtesy of Wikipedia

The plot of Turandot is a double adaptation from a play by Gozzi and this in turn taken from a tale in the Thousand and One Nights. From all around the world young nobles have come to Peking to vie for the hand of the haughty and contemptuous Princess Turandot. It is a matter of waging one’s very life for this love .The announcement of intention begins with the ringing of a gong in a public square and this leads to a confrontation with Turandot in which three riddles are given, to fail to answer them is to suffer death and all comers have failed. Into this drama steps Prince Calaf, in flight from a palace coup. He is accompanied by his father Timur, who is blind, and his helper and slave Liu. She follows in part to attend the old man and in part to be near Calaf whom she loves. Despite pleas on the part of the people of Peking in glorious choruses, the courtiers Ping, Pang and Pong (who afford comic relief to the carnage ) and her father the aging Emperor Altoum, Calaf rings the gong. This at the very moment that we are treated to the spectacle of the beheading of the doomed Prince of Persia. To the astonishment of all Calaf succeeds where all others have failed and answers the riddles. Turandot horrified begs her father to protect her against the laws of the land and the terms of the contest. Generous in victory Calaf offers the Princess a final option: if she can discover his name by dawn he will relinquish his claim. This gives us the great aria Nessum Dorma , as Turandot decrees that no one sleeps until she has uncovered the Prince’s name. Fearing  failure and desperate she threatens to torture Timur and Liu and she claiming that only she knows his name protects him by stabbing herself and committing suicide. The emotional balance of the opera shifts after the great tenor solo:
Nessum dorma ! Nessum dorma!
Tu pura, o Principessa,
Nella sua fredda stanza
No man shall sleep! No man shall sleep!
You too, o Princess,
In your chaste room are watching the stars which
tremble with love and hope!
When Puccini finished Nessum dorma he wrote that he thought it would be the great remembered aria of the opera, how right he proved to be. With the death of the character Liu his composition ceased and as he predicted, he died without completing the final scene and duet in which Turandot capitulates after Calaf  in a final act of love, offers his name to her and she rather than deny her love confesses it at last to the jubilation of all Peking. This last part written of the opera was orchestrated by Franco Alfano from Puccini’s last sketches.
Tune in for this Saturday Afternoon at the Opera and what has been called “ the last Grand Opera “ , Puccini’s Turandot with Birgit Nilsson in the title role and Franco Corelli as Calaf. The gong strikes at noon on KPAC and KTXI.
by Ron Moore

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