Giacomo Puccini left Turandot incomplete, the difficult drama unresolved. He died while still struggling to reconcile the death of the slave girl Liù with the opera's "happy end." At the first performance, in Milan's Teatro alla Scala on April 25, 1926, Arturo Toscanini laid down his baton when Liù's funeral procession left the stage. He turned to the audience and, according to his biographer Eugenio Gara, who was present, said "in a voice hoarser than usual, 'The opera ends here, because at this point the Maestro died'."
The subsequent performances of the opera continued with the completion of it that had been commissioned from Franco Alfano: the duet between Calaf and Turandot, the "frenzied" kiss that melts her heart of ice, her aria "Del primo pianto," Calaf's cry of his name, and the scene-change to the happy end.
Puccini left 36 pages of sketches for these scenes: a "continuity draft," or continuous sketch, that goes as far as the moment of Calaf's kiss and then breaks off; another continuity sketch, briefer, which resumes at Calaf's "mio fiore mattutino" ("my dawn flower") and continues to Turandot's "la mia gloria è finita" ("my glory is over"); and, otherwise, only a puzzling series of musical fragments, most of them untexted, without any indication of where and how they might fit. Seven of these pages are reproduced in Jürgen Maehder's study, "Puccini's Turandot: a fragment"; and eight of them, rather more legibly, and with transcriptions, in a 1990 Musical Quarterly article by Janet Maguire, "Puccini's version of the duet and final scene in Turandot," an introduction to her own new completion of the scenes. Then, in 1991, Alan Atlas published "Newly discovered sketches for Puccini's Turandot at the Pierpont Morgan Library" in the Cambridge Opera Journal.
There were, in fact, two different Alfano completions. Toscanini rejected the first of them. (An indignant Alfano suggested that in that case he might as well resign his post as the respected director of the Turin Conservatory and enroll as a composition student of Toscanini's.) It was 377 bars long. About two-thirds of it was new, original composition by Alfano, largely in the manner of his opera Sakuntala. He followed Puccini' s continuity drafts, of course, so far as they went, but for the rest he made very little use of the untexted fragments. At Toscanini's insistence, 107 of Alfano's bars were cut; other rewriting in the second version introduced a theme from Puccini's sketches (at "Il mio mistero? Non ne ho più!"; "My secret? mine no longer!") that Alfano had not used before. Mosco Carner in his big Puccini biography called Alfano's first version "an organic and rounded piece in which Turandot's transformation took place gradually; it is therefore more credible than the revised version." But Maehder suggested that since the second version provides a better reading of some Puccini passages, a conflation should be prepared, retaining the best of them together with Alfano's original music, and uncut.
Alfano's first version was published in vocal score, and materials for it circulated. Some of it can be heard in early German recordings of "Del primo pianto" ("Die ersten Tränen") by Lotte Lehmann, Mafalda Salvatini, and Anna Roselle. But it wasn't heard onstage until a 1982 concert performance in London's Barbican Hall, and a full staging by the New York City Opera the following year.
Suggestions that in publishing Luciano Berio's new completion of Turandot the publisher G. Ricordi & Co. is simply aiming to "renew copyright" are unworthy. Renato Simoni, one of Turandot's librettists, died only in 1952, and so the opera remains in international copyright until 2023. And Berio has long been fascinated by "reworkings" and "realizations" (of Monteverdi, Weill, Falla, Brahms, Mahler, Schubert, among others). Each of them has shown his eager, specific, often inspired approach to a particular task. Berio's aims in the Turandot completion have been at least three-fold, yet linked.
First, he uses more of Puccini's sketches than Alfano did, finding places for them where they can be given words and plotted into his carefully planned "graph" of the finale. Besides the continuity drafts, Alfano used only one, then two, of the sketches. Berio uses 22 (see Marco Uvietta's "Il nuovo finale de Turandot," his excellent program note for the Canaries premiere of Berio's conclusion, which can be read on the Web at www.puccini.it/saggi/befin.htm).
Second, where Alfano, insofar as he essayed Puccini pastiche, relied on the sound of the earlier Puccini he knew, Berio has been "creatively responsive" to the "new" Puccini that is revealed in Turandot. In an interview last year Berio said: "Let's say that I just carried things a bit further, using as justification a texture concealed in the sketches." Not only elements of Tristan and The Rite of Spring seemed to be there, but also "a virtual presence of Mahler's Seventh Symphony and Schoenberg's Gurrelieder. Let's say that I added commentary, never left it alone; that in my contribution there's an element not of disturbance but of exemplification, of precise commentary."
Third, and perhaps most controversially, there is also criticism, even a "rectification", of the drama. Berio put it thus: "I believe that Turandot was left unfinished not because of Puccini's death but because he was betrayed by an intractable libretto: this oriental tale that reaches a 'happy end' is of indescribable vulgarity, and that's what gave Puccini problems... I have rethought the finale completely: no longer a 'happy end' but a more open and reticent conclusion, an oriental vision of things, less deterministic, less obvious... I have simplified, removed [from the libretto] the more vulgar things, always in accord with the musical concept formed by my study of the sketches."
Berio's new Turandot conclusion, 308 bars long, ends not with a D-major choral blaze acclaiming the happy pair. The chorus, after greeting the Emperor‹"Dieci mille anni al nostro Imperatore!", "May our Emperor live ten thousand years!", first loud, and then more dubiously murmured‹remains silent, apart from a textless sigh under the last note of Turandot's "Il suo nome è Amore!" There's no triumphant "Our infinite happiness laughs and sings in the sun! Glory to thee, Princess!" The light fades, and with it the music fades to a soft statement, disturbingly harmonized, of the "name" or "love" theme, shadowed by a memory of Liù. The Puccini-Berio Turandot ends, on an E-flat chord chromatically attained, with a question, not an easy affirmation.
At the start of the new composition, Berio provides 16 bars of welcome, necessary transition between the carrying off of Liù's body and the sudden trumpet blasts of "Principessa di morte!" For the passages covered by Puccini's "continuity drafts" the vocal lines are then, of course, more or less familiar, but Berio's dynamics and scoring are very different. Alfano, astonishingly, did not see Puccini's full score until shortly before his completion had been made; sometimes he followed Puccini's indications in the sketches, sometimes not. He didn't use the exotic "oriental" percussion of Puccini's score. For the transforming, transfiguring instrumental episode of Calaf's kiss, climax and turning point of the drama, he devised 15 bars, tumultuous, and then subsiding to Turandot's "Che è mai di me?" They were reduced to simply a pounding low E in his second version. But something more must happen here. This is how the libretto puts it:
The Prince, strong in the awareness of his right and in his passion, pulls Turandot into his arms and kisses her frenziedly. Turandot‹beneath such impetuousness‹has no more resistance, no more voice, no more force, no more will. The unbelievable contact has transfigured her. In a tone of almost childish pleasing, she says...
Two bars of thumped low E are not enough for that. It was the point at which Puccini stuck. He wanted a long kiss, with instrumental expression of what mere words could not convey. He had memories of Tristan und Isolde in mind, and wrote "poi Tristan" on the sketch. Berio provides 47 bars of peripeteia (climactic turning point), Puccini-derived, that now quietly, now frenziedly ardent, seem to tell of what is happening to both of them. And he then moves at once, without any "Che è mai di me?", into the "Oh, mio fiore mattutina" of the second continuity draft.
Alfano's "Del primo pianto" has often been omitted from performances of Turandot. (It's missing in the first recording of the opera, with Gina Cigna.) Without it, Turandot's "transformation" seems even more perfunctorily achieved. Berio's "Del primo pianto" is, of course, quite different. We may miss the sweeping phrase of Calaf's "La tua gloria risplende" before it and (in Alfano's first version) Turandot's "Più grande vittoria non volere" at its close, carrying Alfano's best invention up to high C. But Berio's more restrained, less "obvious" "Del primo pianto" has its own beauty, and far more psychological subtlety.
Alfano's ending, though much criticized, has kept Turandot onstage for 85 years. Come 2023, there will no doubt be other essays at a new completion. A merit of musical reconstructions is that, unlike, say, Lord Grimthorpe's reconstruction of the west front of St Alban's Cathedral, they leave the original materials unharmed, still available for new endeavors. Berio's ending can be assessed only in the context of, as it closes, a complete performance of the opera. It needs singers, a conductor, and a director in tune with his inevitably personal vision of Turandot. The composer is the prime mover of any opera performance. In the new closing scenes of a great opera, two great composers now join hands. Read in score, this new Turandot close strikes me as a very beautiful, an inspired solution and resolution to Puccini's struggles, and to an opera whose music I have long loved.
That admiration has survived Joseph Kerman's scorn in his Opera as Drama (a depraved opera, he called it, whose music is "consistently, throughout, of café-music banality"), and sopranos who scream what should be beautiful, and directors who go in for mere display, and other directors who tweak specific, metaphorical poetic action into trashy modernity. Of course one can't like the overt matter of Turandot: Master a proud woman and she'll become submissive seems to be its moral. But there's so much else: marvelous music, allegories of questing ambition, and moral puzzles that Puccini sought in vain to solve. Berio has found a solution.
Andrew Porter, for 20 years the music critic of The New Yorker, writes now in the (London) Times Literary Supplement. This article originally appeared in Opera magazine, May 2002. Used by permission.