March 20, 2017

Turandot: how that final duet might have been fixed

.Everyone knows why Giacomo Puccini did not complete the composition of Turandot.
Puccini in old age

He died. Complications from throat cancer - a heart attack three days following surgery to remove a tumor.

But if you read Puccini's letters to his collaborators, you begin to realize that while dying was a "contributing factor" (granted, a really really big one), it was not the only explanation for his failure to finish the thing.

The truth is that Puccini struggled with the final confrontational duet between the Unknown Prince and the Ice Princess. This was a struggle that went on for months, as a few excerpts from the letters will illustrate.

I am afraid that Turandot will never be finished. (November 1920)

I am in despair as black as night. ...One thing is certain: we must inspire the ... thing with life. As it stands now, it is absolutely impossible, all wrong. ...I know that the subject is not easily convincing... (September 1921)

Turandot gives me no peace. ...I think that perhaps we are on the wrong track... ...the duet in its present form doesn't seem to me to be what is wanted. ...My life is a torture because I fail to see in this opera all the throbbing life and power which are neessary in a work for the theater if it is to endure and hold. (November, 1921)

I am in black despair about Turandot. (November 1921)

I feel that this act as it is does not convince me and cannot convince the listener. (November 1921)

ALL the above quotes (and there are more, but you get the gist) were written two years before he even began to suffer the symptoms of the cancer, and three years before his death.

So what did he find unconvincing? Whence the epic writer's block? Whence all the despair?

To answer, I'll summarize what I, Your Humble Blogger, see as the problems with the opera's final 15 minutes; that duet Puccini hoped would be like "a shining meteor". There are three issues, to wit:

Unable to stomach an opera lacking a sympathetic female character, Puccini added the slave girl Liù. Now he had a worthy successor to Mimi, Cio-Cio-san and Suor Angelica: ultra-feminine, delicate, sweet, nurturing, living for love, and (of course) doomed - in short, an Italian man's fantasy of the Ideal Woman. From the moment at the top of Act I when Liù signals her hopeless devotion to the Prince by wafting a delicately shimmering high note as she recalls the time the Prince smiled at her, Puccini's audience has her pegged. Every one of us melts into a gooey grease spot; she has seduced us. We don't just like her, we LOVE her, and from that moment until her death, she's the one we identify with.

Then, with the opera nearly over, she sacrifices herself and she's GONE.

And before we have a chance to remove the lump in our throats and wipe the tears from our eyes, a harsh reality settles in: the one we loved is gone and we're left with the strident, homicidal, unlikeable harpy.

And we're supposed to transfer all our affection to the harpy, and exult in her happy ending. This is the aspect that Puccini knew was "unconvincing".

As pointed out in an earlier post, Puccini was attempting to make a late-career shift from intimate, realistic, "truthful" (verismo) operas to a full-out fairy tale: exotic fantasy with a happy ending. The biggest contrast is that while verismo characters are complex and three-dimensional, fairy-tale characters are flat -- one-dimensional. Witches are mean, princes are brave, princesses are beautiful. Or in this case, beautiful and violent. But old habits die hard, and the insertion of Liù, the fairy-tale shallowness was compromised; Puccini could not resist engaging our emotions as in the past.

As it happens, another nearly contemporary opera about Turandot appeared in 1917, by the composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni, took a far different approach. This Turandot is a comic piece filled with quirky irony. I don't know if Busoni's work drew Puccini's attention, but he went in the opposite direction: due north towards the humanity in all his operas.

So the idea of a "magical kiss" that instantly turns a domineering vengeful monster into a quivering, weeping, vulnerable woman now open to love...  is a Sleeping Beauty moment in an opera that has just depicted an all-too-tragic and believable scene of suicide. Now we've added another unconvincing element.

In last week's post I floated the theory that the Prince is driven more by THANATOS (the human instinct inspiring hatred, aggression and death) than EROS (the instinct to seek love and life). He never says "I love you" to Turandot; instead (at the end of the aria "Nessun dorma") he says "I will win, I will win!"

This attitude turns what one might expect to be a conventional "love duet" into something more resembling T-Rex versus King Kong - a contest of strength between two dominant beings. This adds a disturbing note when it comes to that final scene. Here's a transcript of the Prince's "seduction":

Your spirit is on high! But your body is near. With burning hands I’ll clasp the gold border of your starry cloak... My trembling mouth will be pressed on yours... 

Do not profane me! 

Ah! To feel you alive! 

Stand back! Do not profane me! 

I want you to be mine! 

TURANDOT Touch me not, it is a sacrilege! 

No, your kiss gives me eternity! 


And then, as the tympani pound repeatedly, he plants a lengthy kiss on her. See the problem? If you don't, you haven't watched NEARLY enough episodes of "Law and Order: SVU", because guess what? It's 2017, and "NO MEANS NO". Pay special attention to that line above: "Your iciness is a lie". Oh brother - that's the same lame excuse every randy high-school boy gives when he's forced his date in the back seat of his car: "She may have said 'no', but I could tell she really wanted it."

It's lucky for the Prince he lives in fabled times, because these days he could be arrested for assault. Even cutting him all possible slack on the theory that "hey, it's just a fairy tale", no one who finds the dialogue above creepy and inappropriate can be blamed.

Three problems, at least two of which were driving Puccini into frustrated depression. (I doubt that the Prince's sexual aggression bothered him, given the patriarchal culture in which he lived.)

AND NOW: MY SOLUTION. Yes, yes, no one asked me, but it's fun to apply oneself to FIXING A MASTERPIECE.

 In her post-kiss daze, Turandot sings her final aria "Del primo pianto" in which she explores her new state of mind. Pay special attention to this portion of the text:

How many I’ve seen die for me! 
And I scorned them; but you, I feared!
In your eyes there was the light of heroes! 
In your eyes there was haughty certainty... 
And for that I hated you... And I loved you for that, 

This is really important - it finally explains why Turandot could respond to this Prince and not the ones she killed. Calaf has caused a flare-up in the battle of opposite instincts. "For that I hated you" - Thanatos! "For that I loved you" - Eros! As I pointed out in my previous post, this single line indicates that each character sees a reflection of themselves in the other. The trouble is, this crucial revelation comes literally in the last ten minutes of the opera. It feels tacked on, like the tail in a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Perhaps, had Puccini lived, it might have occurred to him to introduce Turandot's duality of Eros and Thanatos earlier in the opera instead of the "tail" end (pardon the pun.) He might have realized that Ping Pang and Pong get an inordinate of time onstage for supporting characters.

With that in mind, he could have decided to trim some of their material in Act 2 or Act 3 to make room for a short scene of Turandot in her bed chamber. Her chamber-maid is brushing the princess's hair as Turandot confides her mixed feelings about the stranger who dares to challenge her. She describes her mixture of attraction and revulsion. Then, when she delivers the aria in the finale, it might NOT seem tacked on; it might explain everything.

Oh, and as long as we're re-writing the libretto, let's give our politically incorrect Prince a different strategy in the duet. He could, you know, charm her. He could shock her by admitting his name and saying "You have every right to have me killed now that you know my name, but I don't think you will. I think you know that our destinies are linked forever. I think you want to fall in love at last." Or some such operatic nonsense. Great music could make it work.

Oh, and he should also get over his aversion to the "L" word. C'mon, man, let's pop out a few declarations of "Io t'amo" - you can do this!

The point is, pity poor Franco Alfano. He did not have the luxury of "tweaking" the libretto; his job was to set it to music, as imperfect as he may have found it. And the ultimate point? If the final duet seems unsatisfactory to you, don't be judgemental! Puccini, had he lived, would have lived up to the ideals his perfectionist nature demanded. He knew the finale was not as effective as the rest of the opera. He would have continued his struggle to render a powerful conclusion. The finale would have been different. from the one we have today, to an extent we can, sadly, never know

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