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Friday, September 15, 2017

New Head on the Block

Puccini's Turandot claims yet another victim.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Princess Turandot. Art from the original cover of the score as published by Ricordi.
The title character of Puccini's final opera Turandot is a fabulous Chinese princess, and possibly the most bloodthirsty heroine in opera. Y'see, Turandot, the daughter of the Chinese Emperor, is a single girl. And in a vow to her ancestor, she has her would-be suitors decapitated when they fail to answer three riddles. One could view this work as an exotic vision of ancient China through the eyes of a late Romantic Italian composer...or a game show gone horribly wrong.

The Princess' latest victim is tenor Marcelo Alvarez, who has announced his withdrawal from the Metropolitan Opera's fall revival of its opulent if antiquated Franco Zeffirelli production of the opera, scheduled to return to the big stage at Lincoln Center on October 12. Mr. Alvarez, who is no stranger to the danger of answering these riddles (or singing the famous aria "Nessun Dorma") will be replaced by tenor Aleksanders Antonenko for the fall performances. He is still scheduled to sing the spring run.

Although this opera is flawed, it has captured the imagination of the public to remain one of the most popular works in the Italian repertory. However, the Princess' victims included Puccini himself, who stopped working on the third act in 1924. Before he left for Brussels he begged the conductor Arturo Toscanini "Please don't let my Turandot die." In the midst of undergoing an experimental radiation treatment for throat cancer, Puccini  died of a heart attack. After consultation between Puccini's son and his publisher, a younger composer, Franco Alfano was hired to complete the work.

Alfano was not the first choice. That was the composer Riccardo Zandonai, (best known for the opera Francesca di Rimini. Zandonai was Puccini's personal selection but his son objected. They tried and rejected Pietro Mascagni too before settling on Alfano, a relative unknown whose own works have dwelled in operatic obscurity, although his Cyrano de Bergerac is a worthy work that received a revival last season at the Met. Alfano completed the work on Turandot two years later.

He would become the opera's second victim. It turned out that Toscanini did not approve of the Alfano completion. On opening night at La Scala in 1926, he famously stopped the opera after the Act III funeral march, turned to the audience and stated "At this point the opera ends, because the composer died." The Alfano ending was given the following night, but the sabotage was done: the reputation of this opera's finale (and Alfano's) never recovered.

Most recordings of Turandot and the Met production choose the short version of the Alfano completion with three minutes of music cut. The standard performance practice is to include the big scene that starts with  "Principessa di morte", have Turandot and Calaf fall in love at record speed, and jump-cut back to the grand Throne Room for the finale. Here, Turandot proclaims that the name of the stranger is...Love!" and they presumably get married as the chorus belts out a reprise of the hit tune "Nessun Dorma." In other words, a happy (if hurried) ending.

In recent years, other composers have taken a shot at completing Turandot. In 2016, the Bard Festival devoted three weeks to a detailed exploration of Puccini and held a concert focusing on the incomplete opera, featuring a completion by the composer Luciano Berio. This recording has been recorded in a recent Decca set made at La Scala. Another more recent version twists the ending, making Calaf not Turandot's new husband (a dramatic stretch if there ever was one) but the latest victim of her murderous, unending reign. 

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