Reincarnated Originals of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot

In the premiere version of Turandot, performed on 25th April 1926 at Milan, the opera has three acts as composed by Giacomo Puccini on a libretto by Renato Simoni and Giuseppe Adami. During that premiere performance, the music was exclusively that of Puccini, as completed without additions by Franco Alfano and conducted by Ettore Panizza. Experts believe that Puccini’s initial interest of composing the opera was prompted by an adaptation by Friedrich Schiller’s. His opera however, was mostly based on Carlo Gozzi’s earlier text on Turandot. The original name Turandot was Persian, used to mean “a daughter of Turan”. Turan was a Central Asia region once ruled by the Persian Empire. The genesis of Turandot’s tale was in a Persian fables collection called The Book of One Thousand and One Days. In the collection, the character named Turandokht is a Chinese princess.

Giacomo Puccini began composing the opera in the month of March, 1920. He agreed with the librettists Giuseppe and Renato to begin the composition on January 1921. It took three years to compose the work, finishing the last duet on March 1924. Though advanced in age, with health concerns to boot, Puccini insisted on a heavily poetic libretto and therefore felt unsatisfied with that final duet, especially with its text. The duet would take until October 8, when he accepted Giuseppe’s fourth revision of the text in the final duet. The opera was set for production any time hence. Two days later however, Puccini was diagnosed with throat cancer which took him to Brussels, Belgium, for treatment on 24th November 1924. While there, a new experimental radiation therapy was performed on the throat, which developed complications thereafter. He died on 29th November 1924.

The originals of Turandot that Giacomo Puccini left behind were in a 36-paged sketch book, 23 of the sheets being full of his sketches. Puccini had expressly instructed Riccardo Zandonai to finish the opera but Puccini’s son, Tonio, defiantly objected. It was Franco Alfano, a former student of Puccini, who would eventually be chosen to tie the sketches together under the guidance of Vincenzo Tommasini. The experience and skill of Vincenzo Tommasini was dependable, following his successful completion of Boito’s Nerone after the synonymous composer’s death. After a while however, both Vincenzo Tommasini and Pietro Mascagni had to go and Alfano was given the job.

At that time, Alfano had gained a considerably good repute with his opera La leggenda di Sakùntala. One strong point for his being chosen was that the opera greatly resembled Turandot both in its setting and accompanying heavy orchestration. It was Alfano therefore, who provided the first version of Turandot, ending it with several additional passages of his own. A limitation of that first version was that Alfano had actually added some of the sentences in the libretto which had been rejected by Puccini himself. This earned Alfano a severe criticism from Ricordi, the editor and Arturo Toscanini, the conductor.

Alfano went back to the opera’s originals and wrote a second version that was strictly censored. This version followed closely on Puccini’s sketches, so closely that Alfano didn’t even set some basic texts for Adami’s music since Puccini hadn’t indicated the sounding on the opera’s originals. In the final release of Turandot, Ricordi played a great role in reincarnating the original texts, simply because he insisted on adherence to the sketches. Ricordi’s main concern was not Alfano’s contribution but giving the opera a final sound that attested to the fact that it was Giacomo Puccini’s. That version had lost three minutes during the performance as Toscanini sealed the gaps.

Up to today, it is that shortened version of the opera that is performed. It was actually the one conducted by Toscanini during the Milan premiere on the Sunday of 25th April 1926, exactly a year and five months after Giacomo Puccini’s death. The music died off at the mid of the third Act, at exactly two measures following the words “Liù, poesia!” There the orchestra rested, Toscanini laid down the baton, turned to the audience and before the curtained lowered, he sadly announced, “Qui finisce l’opera, perché a questo punto il maestro è morto” meaning, “Here the opera ends, since at this very point, the maestro died”.

Toscanini never conducted Turandot again and it was Ettore Panizza who took over in subsequent performances. During this performances, Alfano’s infamous ending was included as well as the music upon Liù’s death, which was not in any way in the opera’s original as composed by Puccini. Ricordi’s firm hand however prevented the original scripts from being orchestrated so far out of proportion as compared to the original composition of Puccini’s last opera. The proof of his signature in the opera is replete with climaxes harmoniously blending with choruses and a full pageantry.