The twisting tale of ‘Turandot’

Yimou Zhang’s production of “Turandot” at the Bird’s Nest of Beijing. Once banned in China as Western propaganda, the opera is now a staple of the country’s culture.

“Turandot” (1926) — Giacomo Puccini’s last opera — offers what Copland House director Michael Boriskin calls “the fascinating question of legacy.”

When Puccini, who was suffering from throat cancer, died of a heart attack on Nov. 29, 1924, he left the opera unfinished with 36 pages of sketches for the ending and a now-legendary request to his friend and close collaborator, the conductor Arturo Toscanini — “Don’t let my ‘Turandot’ die.”

Not only didn’t his “Turandot” die but it has thrived all over the world, including in China — the place where it is set and where it was once considered decadent Western art. The story of a Tartar prince’s death-defying love for the imperious Chinese princess of the title, “Turandot” is probably best-known in pop culture for Prince Calaf’s heroic aria, “Nessun Dorma,” which became the tenor national anthem after Luciano Pavarotti sang it at the 1990 World Cup. Recently, it has been in the news again with the death of Aretha Franklin, who sang it in place of an ailing Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy Awards.

Still, the question remains:  Is the finished opera that we hear what Puccini intended?

“That’s the mystery,” says Boriskin, the artistic and executive director of Copland House, which presents concerts, programs, workshops and residencies at the former Cortlandt Manor home of composer Aaron Copland. “We can never know for sure.”

If that’s the case, “Turandot” is in great company, Boriskin says: 

“There are a number of pieces in musical history that were left unfinished, including (Wolfgang Amadeus) Mozart’s ‘Requiem.’ The other most famous instance is (Alban) Berg’s ‘Lulu,’ a 1935 opera. For decades, it was performed in a truncated two-act version with a postlude. The publisher always said there was a third act, the skeleton for which couldn’t be reconstructed.”

But the third act’s skeleton was recovered. It wasn’t, however, until the death of Berg’s wife Helene in 1976 that the opera could be presented in its entirety. (Mrs. Berg had found its story of an amoral woman who becomes a murderous prostitute, murdered in turn by Jack the Ripper, to be “salacious,” Boriskin says.)

A glasses/computer cloth from the Met Opera Shop reproduces the Art Nouveau cover for Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot” score, published by Ricordi. (See story on Page 56.) Photograph by Sebastián Flores.

What makes “Turandot” particularly fascinating is not only its complex compositional and performance history, which has a Westchester County connection, but its nesting-doll narrative history that stretches all the way back to the time of Alexander the Great. According to Richard Stoneman — the foremost authority on the myths associated with the ancient Greco-Macedonian conqueror of the Persian Empire and author of “Alexander the Great: A Life in Legend” (Yale University Press, 2008) — there is a poem contained in medieval books in the Monastery of Varlaam at Meteora in Greece and at Mount Sinai Monastery in Egypt about Alexander’s romance with the warrior Babylonian Queen Semiramis (which would’ve been quite a feat as she died some 500 years before he made Babylon his capital). In the poem, Alexander pursues her, but she says she will reject and even kill him unless he answers three riddles that have doomed other would-be suitors. Needless to say, Alexander is up to the challenge.

Which is precisely what happens in “Turandot.” But can we connect these ancient figures to Puccini’s 20th-century opera? We can, I think, because the opera’s original story is from the “Haft Paykar” (“The Seven Beauties”) by the 12th-century Persian Sunni Muslim poet Nizami, who wrote the “Eskandar-nameh,” or “Book of Alexander,” in which the conqueror ventures to many places, including China.

While the name Turan-Dokht (“daughter of Turan”) is a common one in Persian tales of Central Asian princesses, Puccini — who had already explored Japan in “Madama Butterfly” — chose to set his new opera in China and incorporate Chinese themes, including the country’s national anthem and the “Jasmine Flower” folk melody. He composed and orchestrated everything up to the death of Liù, the slave girl whose devotion to Calaf earns Turandot’s wrath. 

When Puccini died, composer Franco Alfano was ultimately chosen to complete the work. But both Toscanini and Puccini publisher Tito Ricordi II found his contribution to be too much Alfano and not enough Puccini and the composer had to create a new ending that adhered more strictly to Puccini’s sketches. Toscanini trimmed this, and it is this ending that audiences usually hear.

But not at its premiere at La Scala in Milan on April 25, 1926. With Polish soprano Rosa Raisa and Spanish tenor Miguel Fleta as the leads, Toscanini conducted the opera up to Liù’s death, laid down his baton and announced: “Here the maestro laid down his pen.”

Over the years, productions have gone back to Alfano’s first ending and sought new ones, particularly in China, where composers have reappropriated Puccini’s appropriation of Sino melodies. (The opera, once rejected as Western propaganda and stereotyping, has been a Chinese mainstay since at least the epic 1998 “Turandot in the Forbidden City” production conducted by Zubin Mehta and featuring a cast of hundreds that included extras from the People’s Liberation Army.) 

About 20 years earlier, New Rochelle-reared composer Janet Maguire began work on a new ending that she said was sketched out in a few pages by Puccini. That ending has never been performed but Maguire, now living in Venice, went on to become a 2006 fellow at Copland House where Boriskin remembers her as a “highly literate composer of exquisitely detailed music.”

This past spring, there came word of a Chinese film version of the opera, in which Turandot poses the three riddles to save her own life.

It is the latest twist in what Boriskin calls “an interesting detective story.”

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