NEW YORK—“Turandot” was Puccini’s last opera, unfinished at his death and completed by Franco Alfano. At the world premiere in 1926 at La Scala, the conductor Arturo Toscanini (who was a friend of Puccini) stopped in the third act and told the audience, “The opera ends here because at this point the Maestro died.” Later performances of “Turandot” at La Scala and other opera companies, generally used an edited version of the Alfano ending.
The action takes place in ancient China, where Princess Turandot is playing hard to get; suitors have to answer three riddles or die. At the opera’s beginning, the Prince of Persia is beheaded for failing the test.
A young man named Calàf is among the onlookers and recognizes in the crowd his long lost father, the exiled King Timur of Tartary, The old man is traveling with Liù, a slave girl, who admits that she has feelings toward Calàf and that this is the reason she continues to care for the old man—the despite the fact that all of Timur’s court and followers have deserted him.
After a glimpse at the beautiful but hard-hearted Princess, Calàf decides to win her hand in marriage despite the protests of his father and Liù. Three comic characters, the ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong, also try to discourage him.
In the second act, Turandot appears and relates how her ancestor, Princess Lou-Ling, was kidnapped and murdered by an enemy army. As a result, Turandot is determined never to marry and to carry out revenge on any suitors.
Calàf answers her three riddles, but the Prince inexplicably gives her another chance to execute him. He announces that if she can learn his name by dawn, she can have him beheaded.
Turandot issues a proclamation that no one can sleep until the stranger’s identity is discovered. Soldiers capture Timur and Liù and bring them before the Princess. She orders them to speak. The slave girl says that she alone knows the suitor’s name but refuses to answer even when she is tortured.
She grabs a dagger and, declaring her love for the stranger, kills herself. Suddenly, the princess softens her resolve, and Calàf then reveals his name. They go off happily ever after.
Perhaps if Puccini had lived, he would have come up with a more convincing ending.
Fortunately, the Metropolitan Opera is still using Franco Zeffirelli’s extravagant set for “Turandot.” There was a 45-minute wait after the first intermission but the audience didn’t complain. In fact, even though the music was playing, they burst into applause when they saw the Peking Imperial Palace.
Whatever gold wasn’t used in the set rained down on the assembled masses at the end. The cast was strong.
The title role in the opera calls for an almost Wagnerian sound—it was probably the finest Italian role of Birgit Nilsson—and here was performed by another Swedish soprano, Iréne Theorin, noted for her work in Wagner’s operas. Her big voice soared over the orchestra in her famous aria “In questa reggia.”
As Calàf, tenor Walter Fraccaro produced an Italianate sound with strong high notes. His “Nessun dorma!” justifiably brought the house down. (Sometimes during the performance, the orchestra, conducted by Dan Ettinger, drowned him out.)
The bass Samuel Ramey no longer has the firmness of tone that made him a star but, as the blind Timur, the exiled king and Calàf’s father, he was quite moving.
Perhaps the most satisfying cast member was the soprano Hibla Gerzmava as Liù, the slave girl devoted to Timur and in love with Calàf. She has some lovely arias and sang them with immense feeling.
The chorus plays an important part in the opera and, under the direction of Donald Palumbo, was superb.
Barry Bassis is a New York based writer who covers music, theater, dining, and travel for various publications. He is a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.
The Epoch Times publishes in 35 countries and in 21 languages. Subscribe to our e-newsletter