February 27, 2017

Turandot: Puccini out of his comfort zone

Do you keep up with current movies? I'll bet you do, so you've probably heard about Fences, the adaptation of August Wilson's play with a cast including Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. It's nominated for four Academy awards. I haven't seen it yet, but I've been busy; it's on my list.
1926 poster for premiere production.

So what movies in film history are similar to Fences? Ben-Hur? Cleopatra? Lawrence of Arabia? Star Wars: The Force Awakens?

Not hardly. Fences, from all I've read, is a small-scale family drama involving mainly a father, mother and son, taking place mostly in a fenced-in back yard. Those other flicks? Big-budget Hollywood epics with huge casts, special effects, ...the whole shebang.

And this is one of the interesting things about Giacomo Puccini's final opera Turandot: after a lifetime of writing intimate operas akin to Fences, he went for giant-sized spectacle. It's a jarring change. It was a huge artistic gamble.

Consider the cast of Tosca. Like Fences, it focuses on the interactions of three people: Tosca, Cavaradossi and Scarpia. A chorus of church-goers makes a brief appearance in the Act I finale.

Madama Butterfly has a setting comparably limited as that of Fences, all the action taking place in a small house in Nagasaki. Just as the fenced-in yard of the film is a metaphor for the repressed emotions and limited perspective of Washington's character, so Cio-Cio-san's house on top of a hill represents her isolation as she's abandoned by both Pinkerton and her relatives.

And so it goes with the other works pre-dating Turandot. 

The other big departure in Turandot is Puccini's abandonment of any element of the verismo premise of the so-called Nuova Scuola of late nineteenth-century Italian opera seen in works of Mascagni and Leoncavallo.  Gone were stories of starving young artists and their love lives, a painter, a teen-aged Geisha, a saloon-keeper in the Wild West, a disgraced nun, and so on. For his last work, Puccini chose a fairy tale. Any story in which a homicidal man-hating princess is instantly transformed into a vulnerable, loving woman by a single kiss has pretty much derailed off the verismo track.

The source for Turandot is the ancient collection of stories known today as The 1001 Nights. Theses are the tales told by Scheherazade to the Sultan to avoid execution. You knew that Sinbad and Ali Baba characters in The 1001 Nights, but perhaps didn't realize it included Puccini's Ice Princess.

The collection was translated into French in 1710. In 1760, Carlo Gozzi (the author who also gave the world Pinocchio), adapted the story into a play. He added elements of Italian Commedia dell'Arte, with characters who became Ping, Pang and Pong in the opera.

TRIVIA: Gozzi's play has indirect ties to two other productions of the current Virginia Opera season. Friedrich Schiller made a German version of the play in 1802 that proved quite successful. A production at the court in Stuttgart in 1809 featured incidental music composed by Carl Maria von Weber, the composer of Der Freischütz, the subject of my last three posts.

Another link: Bertolt Brecht, who penned the text for our season-opening The Seven Deadly Sins by Kurt Weill, wrote his own version of Turandot after seeing the Gozzi play in 1932. As one might expect, his Turandot became a biting satiric comedy lampooning capitalism.

So: Puccini took a leap of faith, trusting that his skills were equal to the challenge of creating a viable fairy-tale epic with giant orchestra, chorus, and out-sized scenes of pomp and spectacle. Did he pull it off?

We'll never really know, of course, because his death from throat cancer in 1924 not only left the opera unfinished, but also left substantial challenges to be resolved in crafting a successful conclusion. The ending cobbled together by composer Franco Alfano doesn't come close to solving the difficulties that Puccini knew remained in the last scene; at best, it's a tacked-on approximation of Puccini's style whose main value is that it makes the piece sufficiently stage-worthy to allow viable performances.

In the next few posts, we'll explore the nature of those challenges as well as documenting Puccini's struggles and bouts of depression as he labored under the strain of mastering this new style. We'll see why nothing Alfano could have written, or any other composer for that matter, would have produced a completely satisfactory final scene.

And I'll tell you how I, Your Humble Blogger, would have solved at least one of the major challenges.

Whatever remains missing in his incomplete masterpiece, the beauty and variety of the material he did finish resulted in a thrilling opera that is cherished by millions, including Your Humble Blogger. This is an opera that delivers on nearly all of the pleasures of the art form. Puccini's shade can rest easy, though I doubt that it does. Perfectionist that he was, it's got to be driving him nuts that we're staging something he wasn't done with.


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