Happily Never After? ‘Turandot’ Ending Enigmatic

Nina Stemme as Turandot in La Scala’s 2015 production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff. (Brescia/Amisano © Teatro alla Scala)

PUCCINI: Turandot (completed by Luciano Berio). Nina Stemme (Turandot), Maria Agresta (Liù), Aleksandrs Antonenko (Calaf), Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Timur), La Scala Chorus and Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly. Nikolaus Lehnhoff (stage director), Raimund Bauer (set designer). Decca Blu-ray Disc 0743938. Total Time: 136:00.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW — Giacomo Puccini’s last opera, Turandot, was a work he struggled mightily to finish, over four years, as he was becoming increasingly incapacitated by the throat cancer that ultimately killed him. His letters to his librettist and close friend Giuseppe Adami (1878-1946) — Adami collaborated on the libretto with Renato Simoni (1875-1952) — give a vivid picture of a composer determined to produce an opera worthy of his own high standards in the face of the pain he faced every day.

Composer Giacomo Puccini

This correspondence with Adami also reveals that the last scene of Turandot gave him the most difficulty; he simply couldn’t figure out how to end the opera. By October 1924, the pain had gotten so severe that he couldn’t continue, and Puccini left his home in Viareggio (northern Tuscany) to see a specialist in Brussels, writing to Adami (shown in the English translation used by Charles Osborne in The Complete Operas of Puccini):

Will it be an operation? Or medical treatment? Or sentence of death? I cannot go on any longer like this. And then there’s Turandot. Simoni’s verses are good, and I think he has done just what was needed and what I had dreamed of. All the rest of Liù’s appeal to Turandot was irrelevant, and I think your opinion is correct that the duet is now complete. Perhaps Turandot has too much to say in that passage. We shall see — when I get to work again on my return from Brussels.

Puccini never returned home from Brussels. He underwent surgery there and seemed to have come through in good shape; unfortunately, his heart gave out a few days after the operation and he died on November 29, 1924.

The recording is also available in standard DVD.

Turandot received its premiere at La Scala April 25, 1926, with Toscanini conducting. As Puccini had left the opera unfinished, Franco Alfano (1875-1954) was asked to compose an ending based on Puccini’s sketches. After serious consideration, Toscanini decided not to use Alfano’s ending, finishing instead at exactly the point where Puccini had stopped composing. Later La Scala performances did use the Alfano ending — or at least a version of it — and most opera houses have followed suit for their Turandot productions. This new La Scala recording from 2015 is based on performances using yet another ending to the opera, one by composer Luciano Berio (1925-2003).

The Alfano ending has often been criticized for being too brief and superficial, with some critics arguing that Puccini himself would have written a more substantial and complex final duet for Turandot and Calaf. After all, the climax of the opera comes when Turandot, finally realizing that Love is more important than anything else, succumbs to Calaf’s all-out attempt to win that love. This emotional surrender is scarcely credible to some in the audience; after all, we have watched her destroy one suitor after another without the slightest hint of feeling. And after Calaf becomes the first man to solve her three riddles, she still does her best to destroy him by ordering the torture of the innocent Liù. Only after Liù kills herself rather than reveal Calaf’s name does Turandot apparently understand the power of love, at which point this unrepentant sadist and mass murderer changes miraculously into a loving partner for Calaf.

Berio’s ending continues to divide critics.

This complete transformation is what Puccini and his librettists had to “sell” audiences in the final scene. We’ll never know whether Puccini himself could have done it had he lived to complete the opera, but we do know that Alfano did not and that Berio’s “sell” continues to divide critics.

Berio’s ending is perhaps more comprehensible to audiences in that it is ambiguous. In the Alfano version, Turandot’s transformation takes place in a matter of seconds followed by a triumphal final chorus. In the Berio version, as Turandot and Calaf leave the stage together, there is no triumphal outburst from the assembled throngs, and the audience is left to wonder whether such flawed human beings could ever find happiness. Berio deliberately underplays the scene with music reminiscent of some of Richard Strauss’ darker operatic scenes.

In this La Scala production, Nikolaus Lehnhoff makes the scene even darker by having Liù’s body remain on stage throughout this final scene, with Calaf giving her one last look as he exits with Turandot.

Stage director Lehnhoff darkens the final scene.

Is Calaf feeling guilty that Liù gave her life for him? That would certainly be an improvement over the all-out celebration of his triumph that Alfano gives us. On the other hand, I suspect that if one did a survey of audience members, most of them would come down on the side of the Alfano Hollywood ending rather than on the side of Berio’s moody, quiet final bars.

Upon reading Puccini’s letters and studying the libretto and the score of the opera, one is left with no doubt that the setting of the work is critical. One can’t imagine Madama Butterfly being set anywhere but in Japan or La Fanciulla del West anywhere but in the American West. Similarly, Turandot is a fairy tale clearly set in China with Chinese characters, music incorporating Chinese folk songs and instruments, and colors selected to complement this “China” setting of the opera.

Ping, Pang, Pong as “commedia dell’arte” figures? (Brescia/Amisano © Teatro alla Scala)

Franco Zeffirelli may have overdone the chinoiserie in his famous Met production (1987), but to make the opera culture-neutral, as it were, is to ignore or suppress many of the fundamentals that make it distinctive and fascinating. Raimund Bauer’s sets are heavy-duty industrial and Andrea Schmidt-Futterer’s costumes are entirely lacking in cultural identity. Lehnhoff has tried to fashion into something far more universal an opera the very soul of which depends on bringing to life a fairly precise time and place. In my opinion, Puccini’s operas just don’t lend themselves to this sort of cultural neutering — Turandot least of all.

Turandot in “judgment” mode.

That said, I must admit that the production team executed one idea spectacularly well. On several occasions, the back of the set opens to reveal an enormously tall figure in a magnificently imaginative costume. In Act II, this is the Emperor dressed in white against a black background, and in Acts I and III it is Turandot herself, similarly depicted as a larger-than-life figure towering over her wretched subjects.

Turandot and Calaf are both cruel and odious characters in the opera, and the composer showed them little mercy, either as characters or singers. Only singers with lungs of steel need apply for these roles. Soprano Nina Stemme has the volume required for the role of Turandot, although one wonders what the wear and tear must be doing to her voice.

In this performance, we get the best and the worst of Stemme. The nearly constant shouting often turns ugly, but in her quieter moments she produces a sound that is rich and expressive. Tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko has deservedly been praised for his Otello in recent years, but he is not much of an actor and, in close-ups in this video treatment, he gives us little more than a blank stare. And whose bright idea was it to have him do his big “Nessun dorma” (“None Shall Sleep”) aria from a balcony almost at the back of the stage? Antonenko has a powerful voice, but give the man a break! I was reminded of Helga Dernesch as Isolde in a Karajan production, singing her “Liebestod” from the very back of the Salzburg Festspielhaus stage; she was barely seen and almost inaudible.

Riccardo Chailly conducted well in this run-up to his term as La Scala’s music director that started at the beginning of 2017. Chailly and Lehnhoff had done Turandot together in Amsterdam in 2002 — their first outing with the Berio version — and have certainly had plenty of time to refine their thoughts about the opera. They make a good case for the Berio ending. Whether they do justice to Puccini’s vision is another matter.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.myscena.org.