The History Of Turandot. Part III

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Dramatically, Turandot is already a very strange work to classify: full to the brim with eye-catching Chinoiserie, the parameters of the storyline still seem both slim and confusing. How do we react to a plot which has a (forced?) happy ending, though which started via a mass extermination? Similarly, how do we react to eponymous “heroine” Turandot herself-sympathetic victim of circumstances, ruthless manipulator, or simply cardboard cut-out?

Again, it might be argued that the meddlesome trio of Ping, Pang and Pong are not sharply enough differentiated; nor do they add a great deal to the narrative, except for the tiresome exercise of trying to tell them apart! G & S’s Three Little Maids might almost be their forebears.

So, on the one hand, Turandot is a very grand opera, with very grand effects; on the other, it comes across almost as a comic-book scenario, with an array of “potential” allusions to material as diverse as The Merchant of Venice, Cinderella and The Mikado thrown in for good measure. Yet are these faults, or are they the ingredients which render Puccini’s last opera into a fascinating and radical new vehicle? For perhaps here is a knowing and quintessentially modern exploration of archetypes, fashioned out of, in T.S Eliot’s famous phrase from his Waste Land of 1922, “fragments shored against our ruins”, in manner not dissimilar to that soon to be explored by other operas such as Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex or Alban Berg’s Lulu.

Yet all that, of course, still doesn’t take into account Puccini’s remarkable score, with its compelling fecundity of musical invention. Puccini’s kaleidoscope craftsmanship is such that he is able to employ a range of oriental timbres in his orchestral writing, with much use of tuned and unturned percussion.

Competing orchestral colours help to delineate both character as well as dramatic mood. For example, whilst great swathes of ceremonial music portray the teeming world of Turandot’s Peking, Calaf’s and Liu’s encounters are hushed, intimate, almost chamber-like in comparison. Recurring motifs and melodies occur to cohere the opera into a compelling and satisfying whole, yet out of it all still blaze the tumultuous choruses and the grand tunes, perhaps none more so than “Nessun Dorma”.

If Puccini had lived just a little longer, how exactly might he himself have finished Turandot? We will never know. But Alfano’s decision to reprise “Nessun Dorma” as the opera’s conclusion proves both a highly fitting end in itself as well as a suitable tribute to Puccini’s memory, plus an apt elegy to his operatic oeuvre as a whole.

Nessun Dorma by Alexei Yagudin

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