Turandot - Program Notes - Feb. 18, 20, 23, 2016 cover

Turandot - Program Notes - Feb. 18, 20, 23, 2016


Puccini’s spectacular masterpiece about a bloodthirsty princess whose icy, vengeful heart softens as she comes to know true love. The lyrical and sweeping score is filled with treasures including its signature aria “Nessun Dorma,” which has been used in many Hollywood scores and as the theme for BBC’s World Cup television coverage.
This concert is part of Pacific Symphony's "Opera Initiative", now in its fifth season.
This is Part 1 of the Program Notes for February 18 - 23. You’ll be automatically linked to the next NoteStream at the end.
Meet the Artists here To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here. Learn about the 2016 Lantern Festival here.
Alan Chapman introduces the music of Puccini's epic fairy tale, the opera "Turandot," in this Podcast.
Program Note Annotator
Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor-in-chief for The Santa Fe Opera.

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What is the ice that makes you burn?

Alan Chapman introduces the music of Puccini's epic fairy tale, the opera "Turandot," in this Podcast.

Music by Giacomo Puccini (1858 — 1924)

Libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, based on a dramatic fairy tale by Carlo Gozzi (1720 — 1806)

What is the Ice That Makes You Burn?

It's undeniable that Puccini loved his women — quite literally, his women.

Starting with his first major success, Manon Lescaut, Puccini's operas give us a panoply of remarkable female protagonists who rivet us and capture our sympathies even when they are not entirely admirable.

Consider Manon herself, a pert ingénue who can't see beyond her own feminine allure; she is without scruples until it is far too late, yet somehow her vivacity and charm win us over.

Then there's Tosca, the charismatic diva whose jealousy is her downfall, matching wits with one of the most terrifying villains in all opera and fighting him to a fatal draw.


Minnie, the heroine of Puccini's misunderstood masterpiece Girl of the Golden West, is a tough yet tender-hearted saloonkeeper who can hold her own with the men — progenitor of Gunsmoke's Miss Kitty.

Her opposite (except in moral strength) is the timid Cio-Cio-san, the eponymous Madame Butterfly, whose apparent fragility belies ironclad resolve.

According to one famous anecdote, Puccini — as he lay on the ground in a semi-conscious delirium after an auto accident — was found murmuring "poor Butterfly." Who can doubt that he had a composer's crush on a character of his own creation?

Bucking A Trend

Fanny Tacchinardi Persiani as Lucia in the London premiere, image by Edward Morton (1839)

Bucking A Trend

In presenting these strong, self-activating women, Puccini was bucking a tradition of long standing in an art form known to rely on weak female stereotypes from time to time — for example, the typically dependent creatures in bel canto operas who go mad or are rescued, or both.


They are appealing and vocally expressive, but less fully dimensional than the men around them.

Puccini's great predecessor Giuseppe Verdi altered the trend by sensitively portraying women and their relationships with men, a strength said to arise from the traumatic loss of his first child — his daughter, Virginia — before her second birthday. Puccini went even further in giving us fully realized, sympathetic, complex women who are agents of the action on stage, rather than just dramatic pawns.


But in the title role of Puccini's last opera, we encounter still another kind of woman.

We may admire the mythic Chinese princess Turandot; we may, in fact, be awed by her; but we do not love her.

One of the most formidable vocal challenges for any dramatic soprano, Turandot does not sing a note in the opera's first act. Her entrance in the second act comes only after the musical tension builds to a fever pitch, galvanizing the onstage Chinese citizens as well as the audience.

Choral Mastery

Image by Thracia at English Wikipedia, public domain

Choral Mastery

Puccini's superbly wrought choral writing for the crowd scenes in Turandot is some of the most remarkably sophisticated in 20th-century opera.

Hidden Humanity

This princess, who vengefully beheads one suitor after another, taunts the opera's hero with the riddle of her own identity: What is the ice that makes you burn?

That hero, Prince Calaf, is described as "overwhelmed by her beauty," but the operative word here is "overwhelmed," not "beauty." Turandot's appearance is not characterized by traditional feminine appeal, but by monumentality.

She glides onto the stage encased in a vast gown and headdress that are works of architecture rather than mere clothing. They institutionalize her, masking her human appearance. Her unending quest to avenge the violation of an earlier princess, Lou-Ling, has made her the prisoner of her own burning rage.


If Turandot is not a typical operatic heroine, neither is her antagonist a typical leading man.

Yes, Calaf is heroic in stature and bold of action; but his courage in courting this archetypal ice-princess seems more a quest of personal destiny than a matter of love. In fulfilling it, he must reject the only people who really do love him: his father Timur, a dispossessed king now blind in his old age, and Timur's loyal attendant Liú, both disguised as Chinese peasants.

Broken Hearts

Puccini evokes the characters of Liú and Timur with ineffable tenderness, and they break our hearts.

These are the characters who win our sympathies, rather than Turandot and Calaf. It is Liú who provides the foil of emotional intimacy that gives perspective and meaning to the opera's monumentality; in love with Calaf, she sings two exquisite arias that are showpieces of the lyric soprano repertory, and she dies for his sake.

In her and Timur we see how Puccini has combined elements of traditional operatic romance with mythic, almost diagrammatic elements of Chinese music dramas.

Original 1926 Turandot Poster

Original 1926 Turandot Poster

Public domain

The Story of the Opera

Act 1

The opera opens in a public square in ancient Peking with the imperial palace in view. A Mandarin proclaims a now-familiar decree by the Emperor: His daughter, Princess Turandot, will wed the first suitor who can solve three riddles. All those who fail will be executed, including the most recent candidate — a Persian prince scheduled for public execution at moonrise.

This prospect has excited the bloodlust of crowds surging in the square, whose lives have been made miserable by the Princess's obsessive desire to avenge a historic injustice.

Act 1 (Cont.)

In the midst of the crowd, an elderly blind man is knocked to the ground, and the young woman with him calls out for help.

Prince Calaf, who comes to their aid, recognizes the old man as his own father, Timur, the exiled King of Tartary, who has fled that country with the slave-girl Liú, who attends him.

Her devotion to Calaf and his father began when Calaf bestowed a smile upon her. An executioner arrives and begins to sharpen his axe in preparation for the upcoming execution, further exciting the crowd, which prays for the moon to appear.

Act 1 (Cont.)

As a procession leads the Prince of Persia to the scaffold, his dignity and courage move the onlookers to call for leniency, but their entreaties are ignored by Turandot.

The prince's death comes in a rite of solemn brutality, and he calls out Turandot's name as the axe falls, but the frightful spectacle only confirms Calaf's resolve to try his luck as Turandot's suitor. His intention will be signaled by striking a gong.

As he is about to do so, three bureaucrats of the Chinese court — Ping, Pang and Pong — rush in and try to dissuade him as the ghosts of unsuccessful former suitors bewail their love and their fate. Calaf resists every plea, including a heart-rending appeal from Liú.

The act ends with Liú and Timur in despair at the prospect of Calaf's likely death and their own fate.

Giacomo Puccini, 1858-1924

Giacomo Puccini, 1858-1924

Act II

The job-weariness of Ping, Pang and Pong is in evidence as they prepare the imperial court for either a wedding or a funeral, and they reflect upon the difficult conditions in China since Turandot's ascent to power.

They have seemingly become servants of the executioner, and long for the good old days and for the peace of their respective country houses. Crowds sing in the hope that a successful suitor will subdue Turandot's rage, bringing calm to China once again.

Act II (Cont.)

The second scene of the act ensues without a break and leads to one of the most unusual and dramatic entrances in opera: the royal procession that climaxes with the brilliant ceremonial appearance of Turandot herself.

Building toward this moment, the music increases in intensity as a crowd assembles and dignitaries of the court take their places. Turandot's father, the elderly Emperor Altoum, occupies an elevated ivory throne. After he unsuccessfully tries to dissuade Calaf from seeking his daughter's hand, the imperial decree regarding her courtship is repeated.

Act II (Cont.)

---Christine Goerke, Metropolitan Opera

Finally Princess Turandot makes her way onto the imperial platform robed in magnificence and hauteur.

In her fearsomely demanding aria "In questa reggia," she recounts the story of Lou-Ling, the princess who was raped and murdered by an invading army, whom she has sworn to avenge. "No man will ever take me," she tells Calaf. "Stranger, do not tempt fortune! The riddles are three, death one!"

Calaf's response: "The riddles are three, life is one!"


Act II (Cont.)

The ceremony of the riddles proceeds, with the drama of each deadly question intensified by three anguished, brass-accented chords.

The first two, reminiscent of the fabled riddles of the Egyptian sphinx, are answered correctly by Calaf, but the third one initially baffles him: "What is the ice that makes you burn?" He suddenly realizes that the answer is Princess Turandot herself.

His triumph horrifies her, and she begs her father to release her from her obligation to marry. He refuses, but Calaf, now with the upper hand, turns the tables — offering to submit to execution if she can discover his name before daybreak.

The act ends in a tumultuous emotional climax as the joyful crowd hails Emperor Altoum, who is now hopeful that his daughter will finally wed. Though the air rings with Calaf's triumph, the specter of his uncertain fate may darken the coming dawn.


Night has fallen in the palace gardens, where heralds can be heard echoing Princess Turandot's decree that no one in Peking may sleep until the Prince's name is discovered.

He, too, repeats the decree in his swooningly romantic aria "Nessun dorma" — no one sleeps — asserting the power of his kiss to vanquish Turandot's coldness. He proves immune to bribes and threats of violence, and his assertion that "I will win" appears truthful until the imperial guards appear with Timur and Liú.

As Turandot confronts Timur, Liú protects him by insisting that only she knows the prince's identity.

Act III (Cont.)

Turandot's functionary, Ping, prepares Liú for questioning, and the imperial executioner applies torture, but the frail Liú resists.

When the princess asks her how she finds the strength to keep silent, Liú credits the power of love.

And when that finally begins to fail her, she takes a dagger from an imperial guard and stabs herself rather than speak the name of Calaf. Amid the sad procession that bears away her body, the blind Timur must be told it is Liú who has died.

Act III (Cont.)

Provoked by the suicide of the innocent, beloved Liú, Calaf confronts the haughty Turandot in a fiery, metamorphic duet, addressing her as "princess of death."

At first, she is resolutely unrepentant. When he embraces and kisses her, she begins to yield, yet seems humiliated by her own emotions. Poised between passionate love and abject terror, she begs him to leave with his life and the secret of his identity intact.

Instead he acts even more boldly, revealing that he is Calaf, son of Timur. With this act of masculine defiance he has ceded control of his life back to Turandot. What will she do with it?

Act III (Cont.)

--- The finale from Puccini's TURANDOT, from the Met's "Live in HD" series. Watch the entire performance on Met Opera on Demand: http://bit.ly/V6BD66

Turandot ends as it began, with crowds of Chinese subjects assembled in the courtyard of the imperial palace in Peking. But this time, Calaf stands alongside Princess Turandot in the victory he predicted in "Nessun dorma." The princess declares that she knows his name: It is "Love."




Title page of the booklet opera "Turandot" by G. Adami and R. Simoni of Giacomo Puccini's music - editions G. Ricordi & C. Milan - First performance at La Scala in Milan April 25, 1926

Background on the Opera

Turandot is the last opera that Puccini composed, and is one of his most highly regarded scores.

The fact that he struggled for two years with its third act is a sign of the craftsmanship and serious reflection embodied in it. That act, like the third act of Berg's Lulu, was unfinished at the time of the composer's death — a possibility that Puccini foresaw and prepared for.

In Accordance

The completion of Turandot was entrusted to his colleague Franco Alfano

(not Riccardo Zandonai, the composer's choice, but preferred by Puccini's son and publisher as well as Puccini's friend Arturo Toscanini). Alfano based his work on Puccini's sketches for the opera's finale, producing the now-familiar ending.

But at the opera's 1926 premiere at La Scala opera house in Milan, the conductor, Toscanini, ended the performance with the last notes that Puccini himself wrote — the music for Liú's funeral procession. This was in accordance with Puccini's wishes, and though it is a famous moment in music history, there are many different accounts of the actual event.

According to the most popular rendition in English, Toscanini turned to the audience and said "And here the maestro laid down his pen."

Signore, Ascolta

---Leona Mitchell (Liu, Turandot)

Puccini's understanding of Asian music went beyond superficial Orientalism, and in Turandot he delved deeper than he did in Madame Butterfly. We can hear this in the way the Chinese pentatonic scale of the aria "Signore, ascolta" reveals Liú's character rather than just providing a veneer of Chinese style and in his quotations from existing Chinese folk sources throughout the opera. On the other hand, the irresistibly popular "Nessun dorma" is a heroic example of the romantic tenor aria in the Italian tradition.



Though critical assessments of Turandot generally classify it as a masterwork that may well be Puccini's most progressive score, some analysts believe that his difficulties with the opera's last act indicate its one major flaw: an inability of Puccini's musical conception to find a traditional romantic ending in the psychodrama of power and love that Turandot and Calaf enact.

There have been later attempts to complete the opera's final act, including editions by composers Janet Maguire and Luciano Berio, but they don't fully resolve this problem.

Different And Unique

But could another version really bring Turandot to a more successful resolution?

Here is another possibility: Turandot is an opera that combines the romance and sentiment of the Italian operatic tradition with the spectacle and stark allegory of Chinese drama. It is not your typical love story, but rather something different and unique in the literature of opera.

Continue on to Meet The Artists.

To learn more about the 2016 Lantern Festival, click here

To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.