Program Notes

by Loralee Songer

Giacomo Puccini’s (1858-1924) operas are as popular today as they were in his lifetime. Born into a music dynasty, Puccini had little interest in any other genre other than opera. Early in his career, he had great success with several operas, including Manon Lescaut (1893), La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904). Later, he focused on one-scene operas, as with Il Trittico (1918). The success of these operas established Puccini’s reputation as the most promising composer of his generation.

In 1920, Puccini was in desperate search of a librettist for what would be his last project. During a meeting with playwright Renato Simoni, the conversation turned to 18th century writer Carlo Gozzi and his play Turandotte. Puccini was already familiar with Gozzi’s fable, as one of his teachers at the Milan Conservatory, Antonio Bazzini, composed the opera Turanda in 1867. Simoni sent Puccini an Italian translation of an 1802 German adaption by Frederich Schiller and the composer committed to using Gozzi’s text. However, a constant theme in Puccini’s creative life was his inability to overcome doubt. This doubt, along with seemingly relentless changes to the score, made for very slow progress. Puccini became increasingly frustrated with finding a conclusion for Turandot. During this time, the former Italian diplomat to China, Baron Fassini Camossi, gave Puccini a music box that played several popular Chinese melodies. Puccini used three of these melodies in Turandot, including the national anthem and the popular folk tune Mo Li Hua (Jasmine Flower). This aided in Puccini’s desire to authenticate the Asian culture. By March 1924, Puccini had the opera completed up to the final duet. He became increasingly dissatisfied with the text of the duet and did not continue working on it until October. Shortly after, his health began to fail. Over the next several months, Puccini complained of throat pain and was diagnosed with advanced throat cancer. He continued his work on Turandot and headed to Brussels with sketches of the final duet in hand. He said the duet “must be grand, bold, unforeseen and it must cling to the fantastic to the limit. It must be something great, audacious and unexpected, and not leave things simply as they are. It must be a great duet.” Suddenly, on November 28, 1924, Puccini had a heart attack and died the following morning. At the time of his death, Puccini had completed the first two acts, including orchestration. The final act was also orchestrated up to Liù’s death and funeral cortege.

Puccini’s death left his publisher with a project that needed to be completed. He left behind several sketches for the end of the opera, as well as instructions that Riccardo Zandonai should finish Turandot. Puccini’s son rejected his father’s instructions, as well as several other composers who were vying to complete the work, including Pietro Mascagni and Vincenzo Tommasini. Famed conductor Arturo Toscanini, who was highly involved in the creation of Turandot, asked composer Franco Alfano to finish Puccini’s opera. The posthumous premiere of Turandot took place at La Scala on April 25, 1926, conducted by Toscanini. Although Puccini and Toscanini had an unpredictable relationship, Toscanini was highly involved in the creation of Turandot and Puccini considered him the greatest conductor of his work. The audience at La Scala did not appreciate Alfano’s work on the opera. During the performance, it is believed that Toscanini addressed the audience and ended the opera where Puccini left it, rather than continuing with Alfano’s extended version. Whether the Alfano edition or the abbreviated Toscanini edition is being performed, Turandot proves to be a mysterious, extravagant, and powerful story that is widely accepted and admired.

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