Turandot

No abandoned orphan draws such tears and frustrations as does Turandot,
Puccini’s final work, left incomplete at the composer’s death in
November 1924 and rushed to completion by lesser hands soon afterward.
It remains a sad thought that 325 years of grand Italian opera tradition
should come to its sputtering end in the merely competent hackwork of
Franco Alfano. 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. By doing so, the maestro had carried the
most grandiose of Puccini’s operas to a crisis point but no further,
relinquishing the stage to two larger-than-life monsters facing each
other with daggers drawn across an unbridgeable abyss, but only fifteen
minutes away from a happy ending. The intended love/hate duet that would
have transported these monsters across that abyss and into each other’s
arms was never composed — at least not by Puccini. On his manuscript
sketch, however, he penciled indisputable evidence of the importance he
attached to this climactic duet: the infinitely revealing words “poi
Tristano.”
The Tristan reference adds to the puzzlement. “We don’t really
know what Puccini meant,” says the noted opera historian — and recent
Puccini biographer — Mary Jane Phillips-Matz. “Everyone assumes
he intended to close the opera with something comparable to the love-duet
from Tristan; that makes sense. But that is pure speculation.”

The story is well-known: after Puccini’s death, Toscanini undertook to
bring the work to completion in properly competent hands. Puccini had
finished the opera in full score through the scene of Liù’s death midway
in Act III. The Puccini family’s choice of composer, with Toscanini’s
grudging acquiescence, fell upon Franco Alfano, still at the time not
much more than a musical nonentity. (His one success, the 1904
Risurrezione, displayed reasonable competence but little more.)
Alfano delivered his commission; Toscanini rejected it furiously and
ordered a rewrite. Toscanini conducted the 1926 premiere — postponed
for a year from the 1925 target date — but drew the line at performing
the Alfano ending. Despite his championing of numerous minor Italian
composers, in his complete repertory list as compiled in Harvey Sachs’s
eminently trustworthy biography, not a note of Alfano is mentioned.
Alfano did recast and somewhat tighten his completion — 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’s, is buried in the dust of
Thirty-ninth and Broadway. What we hear today, invariably, is Alfano II.
“Poor Alfano!,” says Phillips-Matz. “I don’t believe he or any of
Puccini’s contemporaries could have written a satisfactory finale to the opera.”
Alfano’s first version, clumsy as it may be overall, ends in a vivid
blaze, with peals of brassy triumph and the lovers joining in the final
music at top lung-power — the everybody-onstage sing-along version of
“Nessun dorma.” For the most part, Alfano I 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 climax of the “Nessun dorma” reprise with
a pair of matched B-flats. (In Alfano II, the chorus goes it alone.)
Turandot’s aria, “Del primo pianto,” runs seventy-nine bars in Alfano I,
pared down to fifty-one in Alfano II. There is one recording of Alfano I
— now deleted but worth the search: Josephine Barstow and Lando
Bartolini on a Decca disc of operatic final scenes, conducted by John
Mauceri. In 1992, American conductor Steven Mercurio created his own
conflation of Alfano I and II for the Opera Company of Philadelphia and
led it, to considerable acclaim, with Alfano’s final brass positioned
high up all around Philadelphia’s Academy of Music.
“I did a considerable amount of tinkering with the stuff in Alfano I
to make it work better, then redivided the brass fanfares in the finale,”
Mercurio told Opera News soon after his Turandot triumphs. “I didn’t
recompose them — I redistributed them. I did this in Philadelphia, with
great success, and repeated it in Washington. And it just tore them out
of their seats every night.”

The latest solution to Turandot’s finale problem comes from what at
first view may seem an unlikely source but actually makes strong musical
sense. Luciano Berio has now tried his hand at a Turandot completion
worthy of the score and its creator. It seems an unusual project for
Berio, one-time avatar of Schoenbergian atonality and longtime kindred
spirit to Pierre Boulez. But we should remember that Berio is not only a
prolific opera composer in his own right but a passionate defender of
Italy’s musical heritage all the way back to Monteverdi. His new version
of Turandot has been sanctioned by the Puccini estate. After trial
concert-performance runs in the Canary Islands and Amsterdam, led by
Riccardo Chailly, it was staged last June by Los Angeles Opera under
Kent Nagano and, two months later, conducted by Valery Gergiev at the
Salzburg Festival, where it was received — if a broadcast tape can be
believed — with the mix of puzzlement and ecstasy attendant on any
major premiere of new and controversial musical substance.
Something else among Berio’s credentials stamps him as the proper agent
to bring Puccini’s near-masterpiece to a fitting conclusion: his prowess
as a highly skilled tamperer. The 1968 Sinfonia, his best-known work,
includes one movement 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. A recent score called Rendering
subjects a folio of Schubert’s deathbed sketches — for a symphony that
would have been No. 10 if completed — to a reworking that builds
handsome and flexible bridges between Schubertian Romanticism and
Berio’s own love of that language.
Berio’s “tampering” with Puccini’s expressed wishes and actual sketches
covers 307 bars, midway in length between Alfano I and II; the
performance under Gergiev ran a few seconds over fifteen minutes, almost
exactly the same length as the Callas recording (of Alfano II,
naturally). The Adami/Simoni text undergoes two cuts: about half of
Turandot’s “Del primo pianto” has gone, and so has the choral finale
with the “Nessun dorma” reprise.
What Berio has done, actually, is 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
Puccini’s music speed the process; Calàf delivers his crucial kiss to
the music of his first response to Turandot in Act II (“Gli enigme sono
tre”). Rather than the echoes of “Tristano” that Puccini might have
evoked for the ensuing duet, there comes next what amounts to a small
tone-poem, nearly three minutes’ worth of purely orchestral music,
skidding through harmonies dense and disturbing, conveying wordlessly
what no ice-bound soprano need verbalize upon the tenor’s first kiss.
The harmonic density may raise hackles among purists; remember, however,
that Puccini’s own last years were spent largely in discovering the
musical world around him — Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and Schoenberg’s
Pierrot Lunaire. There’s good reason to suspect that he might have
welcomed Berio’s tampering far more heartily than Alfano’s flattening.
“Turandot finirà pianissimo,” wrote Puccini to librettist Adami. “This
new Turandot,” said Berio to a radio interviewer, “will end exactly so.”
Prince Calàf (“il principe priapico,” says Berio — the “horny Prince”)
reveals his name — in a close rewrite of Alfano’s frantic crescendo on
a four-note figure — and Turandot drags him off to meet his fate.
“Amore!!!” they both sing on his-and-her B-flats (as in Alfano I), as
faint echoes of “Nessun dorma” percolate through the orchestra. But then
the music subsides; little by little, there is darkness, both visible
and audible. An audience, awaiting the customary “happily ever after”
choral outburst of the Turandot they’ve all known and loved, sits
stunned. You hear it on the tape: a long moment in which the silence is
further prolonged, then the cheers.
Does it work? As music drama created by Luciano Berio — composer of the
magnificent Un Re in Ascolto — it works quite well, a “rendering” 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,
brought on by the somber new ending and by Gian Carlo del Monaco’s murky
staging. (The finale looked as if it had been staged in someone’s
abandoned attic, and neither of the alternating pairs of leads was
anything to sing about, so the antagonists felt obliged to bellow at one
another over the abandoned corpse of hapless Liù.) Even Gergiev, who
delivered a stupendous performance at Salzburg, has confessed that he
will probably revert to Alfano II in future productions. As an example
of a great composer’s respect for a venerable colleague and countryman,
however, Puccini/Berio is definitely win/win.

ALAN RICH is music critic for LA Weekly and the author of several books
now out of print (including the Simon & Schuster Listener’s Guide to
Opera).