The History of Turandot. Part I
The unfinished Turandot was Puccini’s last opera. It has also been called the nineteenth century’s last great opera,too, even though it was composed well into the twentieth. Yet its intriguing mix of sources and methods implicitly makes Turandot a fascinating concoction. Turandot is a summation of nineteenth-century grand operatic traditions, yet based on a flimsy eighteenth-century fairy-tale storyline, and with the timbres of musical Modernism if not openly espoused, then certainly alluded to in the process.
By the end of World War I Puccini was 60. In December 1918 his long-gestated trilogy of one-act operas, Il Trittico, finally had its première at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. By the start of the following year, the ever-restless Puccini was already on the lookout for new subject matter.
It was in 1919 that his erstwhile librettist, and a collaborator on Bohème, Tosca and Butterfly, Luigi Illica, died. To Puccini, both the actual and operatic worlds of the time must have begun to seem like alien landscapes, at least in comparison to what he had known in the heyday of the belle époque.
Yet the old older was no more: this was now the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, the age of film, of avant-garde artistic movements such as Dadaism, Surrealism and Expressionism. In terms of another operatic project, two options lay open to the ageing Puccini: to return to a variation of a successful formula from the past, or to strike out for something new. In a sense, the opera that became Turandot could be said to do both, harking back to the Far Eastern ambience of the turn-of-the-century Madama Butterfly, whilst at the same time abandoning verismo for commedia dell’arte and replacing a gritty Naturalism with myth, mystery and magic.
To be continued
Turandot by the Olympic champion Shizuka Arakawa