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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Opera Explained Series. An Introduction to Turandot. Opera in 3 acts as completed by Franco Alfano
Written by Thomson Smillie and narrated by David Timson

Introducing Turandot
Opera in the 1800s
Puccini's background
Puccini's tenor arias

Background and plot
The opening; Peking
Enter Liu, Timur, Calaf and the executioners
Attempts to dissuade Calaf
Act 2 Scene 1; Ping, Pang and Pong
Into the Riddle Scene (Act 2, Scene 2)
The three riddles
Turandot and Calaf; Act 2 Finale
Act 3, Scene 1; Calaf
The death of Liu
Calaf's defrosting of the Ice Princess
Music extracts taken from the complete Naxos recording of Turandot (8.660089-90)

Princess Turandot, Giovanna Casolla (sop); Prince Calaf, Lando Bartolini (ten); Liu, a young slave girl, Masako Deguci (sopr); The Emperor Altoum Francisco Heredia (ten); Timur, dispossessed foreign king, Felipe Bou (bass)
Malaga Philharmonic Orchestra. Choral Society of Bilbao. Children's Chorus Escolania Santa Maria de la Victoria/Alexander Rahbari.

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Turandot was Puccini’s last opera and this disc was issued contemporaneously with that explaining Falstaff. In my review of the Falstaff Explained I was critical of some of the musical extracts of other works chosen to make certain points and also the failure to point out aspects of Verdi’s musical construction. I have no such reservations in respect of this issue although I will disagree with the statement (tr. 4) dealing with Puccini’s writing for the tenor voice, that ‘No composer wrote more prolific and thrilling music for it than Puccini, he surpassed even Verdi in this respect’. Yes there are thrilling tenor arias in Manon Lescaut, Tosca, Boheme, Butterfly, Fanciulla del West and, of course in Turandot. Needless to say the disc opens (tr. 1) with extracts from Nessun Dorma. It goes on to state that Turandot was the last manifestation of 300 years of Italian Opera as a popular entertainment and not merely that of the elite pace-setters of society. That as a statement truly reflects the reality of the history of Italian opera. I recently read an interview with Mirella Freni, a great interpreter of many of Puccini’s heroines. Born in 1935 she noted that in over fifty years on the opera stage she had never sung a work written in her lifetime. As the narrative notes, with the death of Puccini and the conclusion of Turandot, operatic works rich in tunes had gone it seems for ever (tr. 3). The narrative gives a brief outline (tr. 2) of the 300 year history of Italian opera from Monteverdi and Cavalli in the early sixteen hundreds. There is mention of the age of Bel Canto, and the works of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, before paying tribute to the dominance of the rest of the 19th century by Verdi. There is an illuminating discourse on the feeling that, by the end of that century, Italian opera had lost its way; the initiative had crossed the Alps. Wagner’s influence is illustrated by a brief extract from the Flying Dutchman. The more seamless style of his music was distinctly different from the older Italian tradition of set numbers, be they arias, duets or ensembles. So too was Wagner’s use of the orchestra as a major protagonist and his use of musical motifs that are also a feature of Turandot. The narrative contends that Italian opera responded with the verismo movement, operas based on the dramas of real life. Whilst that is certainly accepted, I am less sure that Bizet’s Carmen (1875) was an influence. Anyway there is a brief extract of the Carmen overture before mention of Mascagni and Leoncavallo and extracts from their popular verismo operas Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. However, as is noted, verismo was a false dawn for popular Italian opera, a last burst of creative splendour before imploding - much as great Empires do!

On the life of Puccini, the narrative recounts how, as a young man destined for the Church, he walked fifteen miles from his home in Lucca to hear a performance of Aida at Pisa (tr. 3). It changed his life and he entered the Milan Conservatoire. It is noted that his early operas Le Villi and Edgar are only rarely revived but after Manon Lescaut his fame spread to the operatic capitals of the world. Puccini’s career spanned over 30 years and produced, in Tosca, Boheme and Butterfly three of the great staples of opera houses all over the world. In respect of Turandot, the narrative tells how, when Puccini died, the score was only completed to the death of Liu in act 3. He had left sketches for the completion of the work (tr. 5). The publisher Ricordi, and the conductor Toscanini, asked Franco Alfano, a composer in his own right, to complete the work, around fifteen minutes of music. Since that time others have also added endings, most recently Berio in a completion that finds favour with some musicians. The plot is outlined and also the use by Puccini of a pentatonic (five note) scale to illustrate the oriental motifs in the work. The narrative then takes the listener through the story with regular musical extracts (trs. 5-16). This is done with exemplary clarity and skill. Particular note is made of the last pages that Puccini himself wrote, Liu’s funeral procession after her death by torture initiated by Princess Turandot to elicit the name of the unknown Prince (tr. 14). This also gives rise to comment on how Puccini seemed to love cruelty, a preoccupation to be found in many of his works. Also recounted is the story of the premiere, conducted by Toscanini. The narrative states that when Toscanini came to the end of Puccini’s composition, as distinct from Alfano’s, the conductor put down his baton with the words, in Italian, ‘at this point the maestro died’ and left the platform, the performance not completed. My previous understanding was that Toscanini merely interrupted the premiere and put down his baton with the words ‘at this point the maestro laid down his pen’. I would not, however, like that minor detail to detract from the excellence of this issue. Like Verdi’s last opera, Turandot has been, for a long time, less popular than many of his other works. The three tenors have aroused interest in it and this disc will further enhance the understanding and pleasure to be derived from listening to what is a very fine work, albeit one that can be a little difficult at first listening; much like Verdi’s Falstaff in fact. Recommended to opera lovers of all ages and types.

Robert J Farr

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