A Close Look at the Choral Music in Turandot
Text and translations can be found here.
In 1924, two years before Puccini’s death, Benito Mussolini led a coup d’état that made him dictator of Italy, leader of a fascist regime that lasted until 1943. Under Mussolini, a small, all-powerful leadership claimed to be the voice of “the people.” Mass demonstrations were a common tool of government. In that context, it’s interesting to consider the role that the chorus, referred to in the libretto as “the crowd,” plays in Turandot, a work written in the years immediately preceding Mussolini’s rise to power.
Even though the story of Turandot takes place primarily within the highest levels of imperial government, the people of its imaginary Peking (Beijing) are nearly always present. When not on stage, they chime in from the wings. They’re heard even before any main characters, at the top of Act I, interrupting the announcement that one more prince has failed to solve Turandot’s riddles. When the Mandarin decrees that the Prince of Persia will lose his head, a cry goes up. It’s hard to tell whether the crowd feels amazement, shock, or bloodthirsty glee. (Track 16)
No sooner has the Mandarin finished than the crowd explodes with anticipation. They mock the executioner—“Are you dead? Asleep?” They vow to drag him from bed. (Track 17)
The night rolls on. The execution cannot begin until the moon is in the sky. As if in trance, the crowd chants a gruesome invitation to the moon: “Rise, severed head! Come, forlorn one, bloodless one, silent one, rise!” (Track 18)
When the moon appears at last, they call for the executioner like eager children, “Pu-Tin-Pao! Pu-Tin-Pao! The moon has come out!” (Track 19)
Yet as soon as the handsome young victim comes into view, the fickle throng changes its mind. The prince is young and strong. His face is sweet and gentle; his eyes, bright and joyful. Have pity, pleads the crowd, as unified as when it called for blood moments earlier. (Track 20)
Perhaps the people of Peking are generous because they know there’s always a new victim just around the bend. Already, toward the end of Act 1, they sense another suitor: Calàf. He has not yet struck the gong to announce his intentions when they cry in frenzy: “We’re already digging your grave, you who defies love! Your cruel fate is written in darkness.” (Track 21)
At the riddle ceremony, in Act II, the crowd hears Calàf defy Turandot’s warning of death and cries out, “Let the unknown prince take the test of daring, oh, Turandot!” (Track 22)
But with Calàf as with the Prince of Persia, the mood of the crowd turns on a dime. Hearing the Emperor cheer Calàf after his first correct answer, they follow suit. (Track 23)
After the second correct answer, they hail Calàf as “riddle solver,” not “unknown prince.” (Track 24)
And as soon as he solves Turandot’s third riddle, the people who so recently predicted his death become his claque: “Turandot!” they shout (not calling to their princess, but repeating Calàf’s solution), “Turandot! Glory to the victor! Life smiles on you! Love smiles on you!” (Track 25)
What do your students make of these collective mood-swings? Is the crowd bloodthirsty in Act I, or simply hungry for excitement? Commentators have noted that Puccini himself was never politically active, that there is conflicting information regarding his attitude toward fascism, and that fascist leaders hailed Turandot at its premiere. But they have also noted that Turandot is the first opera in which Puccini wrote extensively for the chorus: might the rise of the masses in politics have been an element in his decision? Might Puccini and his librettists have been commenting on the place of “the people” in political life? What role do your students believe politics play in art? In the interpretation of art? What role do they think it should play? Turandot’s choruses offer a case study in these perennial questions.