Longtime readers of The Listeners’ Club may recall that this is the time of year when the Richmond Symphony often travels throughout the state as the pit orchestra for Virginia Opera. This year, we’ve been playing Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot. With lush, soaringly romantic melodies, Puccini’s operas are some of the most rewarding to play, from the perspective of a string player. Puccini’s music also brings drama and characterization to life in uniquely powerful ways. For example, listen to the way the opening of Turandot plunges us into the ritualistic creepiness and exoticism of the story which follows. (Prince Calaf has fallen in love with the cold, man-hating Princess Turandot. Every suitor who wishes to marry Turandot must correctly answer three riddles. One wrong answer results in the suitor’s death). The story’s mythic, Eastern setting is enhanced by Puccini’s adaptation of Chinese folksongs such as Jasmine Flower. This melody returns throughout the opera’s three acts as a kind of leitmotif for Princess Turandot.
I’ve often noticed traces of impressionism in Puccini’s music in the form of colorful, shimmering orchestration and whole tone and pentatonic harmony. For example, listen to this passage from the first act of Madama Butterfly. Then, jump ahead to this music from one the darkest moments of Butterfly‘s despairing third act. Or listen to the second and third acts of La fanciulla del West, an opera set in the American west which Arturo Toscanini described as “a great symphonic poem.”
Turandot, Puccini’s last opera, may be his most harmonically daring. Listen carefully to the way the tonal center disintegrates in this haunting passage in the first act as Prince Calaf is lured to Turandot. (The chorus sings the ghostly lines, “Don’t hesitate! If you call her, she’ll appear! She, who makes us dream, though we are dead! Make her speak! Let us hear her! I love her! I love her!”). This is followed by the aria, Signore, ascolta! (“Sir, listen!”), sung by Liu, the Prince’s servant-girl. She is secretly in love with the Prince and pleads with him not to attempt Turandot’s riddles. There’s a simple, plaintive quality about the aria that gives us a sense of direct sincerity of the character of Liu. The aria ends with this transcendent moment of dreamy impressionism.
Here is the full aria, sung by Leona Mitchell in a 1988 Met performance:
When Puccini died in 1924, the first two acts of Turandot were completed, including orchestration. Franco Alfano completed the final act using 36 pages of sketches and piano-vocal score left behind by the composer. Toscanini conducted the premiere at La Scala on April 25, 1926. Halfway through Act 3 (two measures after the words “Liù, poesia!“), Toscanini stopped. Laying down his baton, he turned to the audience and said, “Here the opera ends, because at this point the maestro died.” The curtain was lowered, slowly.
Here is a 1998 performance of the complete opera, led by Zubin Mehta at Beijing’s Forbidden City: