No abandoned orphan draws the tears and the frustrations as does Turandot, Pucciniâ€™s final work, left incomplete at the composerâ€™s deathÂ in November, 1924 and rushed into completion by lesser hands soon afterward. True, the formidable Arturo Toscanini cut his performance short at the world premiere, at the point where the ailing Puccini himself had put down his pen. Doing so, he had carried the most grandiose of all Pucciniâ€™s operas to a crisis point but no further, relinquishing the stage to two larger-than-life monstersÂ facing each other with daggers drawn across an unbridgeable abyss,Â but only fifteen minutes away from a happy ending. The intended love/hate duet that would have transportedÂ these monsters across that abyss and into each otherâ€™s arms was never composed, at least by Puccini. On his manuscript sketch, however, he penciled indisputable evidence of the importanceÂ he attachedÂ to this climactic duet: theÂ infinitely revealing words: â€œqui Tristano.â€
The story is well-known, give or take a vast array of contradictoryÂ retellings. Toscanini, who heldÂ Puccini in mingled adoration and contempt, visited the composer in the summer of 1924, heardÂ him, at the piano, perform the opera as it then stood, which may (or may not) have included his own projection of the final scene. Toscanini liked what he heard, and agreed to conduct the premiereÂ at La Scala scheduled for the following year. At Pucciniâ€™s death, Toscanini undertook to bring the work to completion in properly competent hands.Â Puccini had completed his final opera in full score through the scene of LiÃ¹â€™s death midway in Act III. From then on to the end thereÂ remained â€œa thirty-six-page draftâ€ (says Joseph Kerman in Opera as Drama) or a pile of â€œtwenty-three scarcely legible sketchesâ€ (says Julian Budden in OperaGrove and in his splendid recent Puccini biography) or â€œthirteen pages of sketches, which take the final scene only to theÂ crucial kissâ€ (writes Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times). Toscaniniâ€™sÂ first choice to complete the work (claims Budden) was Riccardo Zandonai; another considered possibility (claims conductor John Mauceri) was the young Viennese firebrand Erich Korngold. Both were rejectedÂ by the Puccini family as being already too illustrious. The choice, with Toscaniniâ€™s grudging acquiescence,Â fell upon Franco Alfano, still at the time not much more than a musical nonentity. (His one success, the 1904 Risurrezione, displayed a reasonable competenceÂ if little more.)
Alfano delivered his commission; Toscanini rejectedÂ it furiously, and ordered a rewrite. Toscanini conducted the 1926 premiere â€“ postponed a year from the 1925 target date –Â but drew the line at performing the Alfano score.. He conducted one single performanceÂ (says William Ashbrook) and then turned the work over to his assistant Ettore Panizza, or he conducted three performances (says Harold Rosenthal), or â€œseveral,â€ (writes Andrew Porter). Considering Toscaniniâ€™s lifelong antipathy toward music he considered inferior, plus his famous on-again off-again regard for Puccini, it seems inconceivable that he would, even once, wave his baton over what he considered Alfanoâ€™s botched job. Despite his championing of numerous minor Italian composers,Â in his completeÂ repertory list as compiled in Harvey Sachsâ€™ eminently trustworthy biography, not a note of Alfano occurs. Alfano did recast and somewhat tightenÂ his completion â€“ workmanlike if workaday, shaving his original 377 measures down to 268. Whether he accomplished this self-mutilation in time for the Metropolitan Opera premiere , seven months after La Scala, is buried in the dust of Thirty-ninth and Broadway..Â What we hear today, invariably, is Alfano 2.
Alfanoâ€™s first version, clumsy as it may be over all, ends in a Technicolor blaze, with peals of brassy triumph and the lovers joining in the final music at top lung-power â€“ the everybody-on-stage sing-along version of â€œNessun dorma.â€ For the most part, Alfano 1 is the more tonsil-twisting of the two versions; the tessitura lies higher, most notably at the end when the lovers join in at the end of the â€œNessun dormaâ€ reprise with a pair of matched B-flats. (In Alfano 2, the chorus goes it alone.) Turandotâ€™s aria, â€œDal primo piantoâ€ runs 79 bars in Alfano 1, pared down to 51 in Alfano 2. There is one recording â€“ now deleted but worth the search: Josephine Barstow and Lando Bartolini on a Decca disc of operatic final scenes, conducted by Mauceri. In 1992, AmericanÂ conductor Steven Mercurio createdÂ his own conflation of Alfano 1 and 2 for the Opera Company of Philadelphia and led it to considerableÂ acclaim, with Alfanoâ€™s final brass spread high up around Philadelphiaâ€™s Academy of Music. Brilliant brass or no, it still makes for a sad contemplation,Â thatÂ 325 years of grand Italian opera tradition should come to its sputtering end in the merely competentÂ hackwork of Franco Alfano. â€œFinita la poesia,â€ sings the crowd on the last completed page of Pucciniâ€™s manuscript, and they may have been right.
Or maybe not. The latest solution of Turandotâ€™s finale problem comes from what might seem unlikely at first view, but which actually makes strong musical sense. Luciano Berio, has now tried his hand at a Turandot completion worthy of the score and its creator. It seem an unusual projectÂ for Berio, one-time avatar of Schoenbergian atonality and longtime kindred spirit to Pierre Boulez, to take on. But we should rememberÂ that Berio is not only a prolific opera composer in his own right but aÂ passionate defender of Italyâ€™s musical heritage all the way back to Monteverdi and before, His new version of Turandot has been sanctioned by the Puccini estate. After trial concert-performanceÂ runs in the Canary Islands and Amsterdam,Â Â led by Riccardo Chailly, it was staged last June by Los Angeles Opera under Kent Nagano and, two months later, at the Salzburg Festival conducted by Valery Gergiev, received â€“ if a broadcast tape can be believed â€“ with the mix of puzzlement and ecstasy attendantÂ Â on any major premiere of new and controversial musical substance.
Something else among Berioâ€™sÂ credentials stamps him as the proper agent to bring Pucciniâ€™s near-masterpiece to a fitting conclusion: his prowess as a highly skilled tamperer.
The 1968 Sinfonia, his best-known work, includes one movementÂ in which a gathering of familiar repertory tunes (Beethoven, Berlioz, Debussy) moves in a stream-of-consciousness progression while another part of the orchestra plays Mahler and a chorus declaims activist graffiti.Â A recent score called Rendering subjects a folio of Schubertâ€™s deathbedÂ sketches â€“ for a symphony that would have been No. 10 if completed –Â to a reworking that builds handsome and flexible bridges between Schubertian romanticism and Berioâ€™s own love of that language.
Berioâ€™s â€œtamperingâ€ with Pucciniâ€™s expressed wishes and actual sketches runs to 307 bars, midway in length between Alfano 1 and 2; the performance under Gergiev ran a few seconds over fifteen minutes, almost exactly the same length as the recordedÂ Callas version (of Alfano 2, naturally). The Adami/Simoni text undergoes two cuts: about half of Turandotâ€™s â€œDal primo piantoâ€ has gone,Â and so has the choral finale with the â€œNessun dormaâ€ reprise.
What Berio has done, actually, has been to recast the entire time-span of this final scene, to the point where his own musical fabrications impart a far more naturalistic flow to the events themselves. Small glints of Pucciniâ€™sÂ music speed the process; CalÃ f delivers his crucial kiss to the music (â€œgli enigme sono treâ€) of his first response to Turandot in Act II. Rather than the echoes of â€œTristanoâ€ that Puccini might have evoked for the ensuing duet, there comes next what amounts to a small tone-poem,Â nearly three minutesâ€™ worth of purely orchestral music, skidding through harmonies dense and disturbing, dealing wordlessly what no ice-bound soprano need verbalize upon the tenorâ€™s first kiss. The harmonic density may raise hackles amongÂ purists; remember, however, thatÂ Pucciniâ€™s own last years were largely spent in discovering the musical world around him â€“ Stravinskyâ€™s Petrouchka and, more remarkable, Schoenbergâ€™s Pierrot Lunaire.. Thereâ€™s good reason to suspect that he might have welcomed Berioâ€™s tampering far more heartily than Alfanoâ€™s flattening.
â€œTurandot finirÃ pianissimoâ€; wrote Puccini to librettist Adami. â€œThis new Turandot,â€ said Berio to a radio interviewer, â€œwill end exactly so.â€ Prince Calaf (â€œil principe priapico,â€ says Berio, the â€œhorny Princeâ€) reveals his name â€“ in a close rewrite of Alfanoâ€™s frantic crescendo on a four-note figure â€“ and Turandot drags him off to meet his fate. â€œAmore!!!â€ sing they both on his-and-her B-flats (as in Alfano 1) as faint echoes of â€œNessun dormaâ€ percolate through the orchestra. But then the music subsides; little by little there is darkness both visible and audible. An audience, awaiting the customary â€œhappily ever afterâ€ choral outburst of the Turandot theyâ€™ve all known and loved, sits stunned. You hear it on the tape: a long momentÂ in which the silence is further prolonged, then the cheers.
Does it work? As music drama created by Luciano Berio â€“ composer of the magnificent Un Re in Ascolto revived not long ago in Chicago and eminently deserving â€“ it works quite well, a â€œrenderingâ€ of thematic fragments by Puccini to stand beside his Schubert piece. The diehards will surely have trouble with the new Turandot. There were dark mutterings after the Kent Nagano-led Los Angeles performances last June â€“ brought on by the somber new ending and by Giancarlo del Monacoâ€™sÂ murky staging that obliged the antagonistsÂ — neither alternating pair a vocal experience to sing about — to bellow at one another over the abandoned corpse of hapless LiÃ¹ and to perpretate their final music in what looked like somebodyâ€™s abandoned attic.Â But evenÂ Gergiev, who delivered a stupendous performance at Salzburg, by the way, has confessed that he will probably revert to Alfano 2 when circumstances so ordain. As an example of a great composerâ€™s respect for a venerable colleague and countryman, however, Puccini/Berio is definitely win/win.