Turandot: Program Note

By Christopher Browner

With his death on November 29, 1924, Giacomo Puccini not only left his latest and most ambitious project unfinished but also left the world without a clear successor to carry on the grand tradition of Italian opera—a tradition that extended all the way back to the art form’s genesis in Renaissance Florence. But while Turandot can be considered “the last great Italian opera,” this designation fails to account for how much of the work isn’t Italian. From its setting to its plot and, most significantly, much of its music, Turandot draws on other cultures—as Puccini had done throughout much of his career—and represents a distinct evolution from the preceding three centuries of Italian opera. Yet it is in no way authentically Chinese either. A Western projection of the East, it is rife with contradictions, distortions, and racial stereotypes—and yet is also one of the most exhilarating and impressive works ever to take the operatic stage.

Not long after the high-profile world premiere of Il Trittico at the Met in 1918, Puccini was already searching for material for his next opera. At first, he landed on Cristoforo Sly by Giovacchino Forzano, who had provided the libretti for Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, but eventually abandoned the idea (though Sly would later be set by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari). Then, critic, writer, and librettist Renato Simoni slipped him a copy of Carlo Gozzi’s Turandot. Premiered in Venice in 1762, the play was inspired by an episode from François Pétis de la Croix’s collection of Persian fairy tales, Les Mille et un Jours, and concerned a ruthless Chinese princess who sets a fatal challenge to any would-be suitor: In order to win her hand, he must correctly answer three riddles, but if he fails, he forfeits his head. With his penchant for exotic subjects, Puccini’s interest was piqued.

Depicting distant lands and peoples was already a centuries-old musical tradition by the time that Puccini considered bringing mythical China to the stage. From Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, with its percussion-heavy vision of a Turkish harem, to the Gypsies of Bizet’s Carmen, Verdi’s faux ancient Egypt in Aida, and Debussy’s “Pagodes,” which took inspiration from Indonesian gamelan music, foreign sound worlds had long exerted a fascination on Western composers. Puccini seems to have had a particular attraction—even obsession—with the Other, traveling as far as Buenos Aires, Cairo, and New York in search of fresh sources to set. After the breakout success of his 1893 Manon Lescaut, he even briefly toyed with the idea of composing an opera about the life of Buddha that would incorporate a collection of East Indian melodies.

Of Puccini’s 12 operas (when one considers the three components of Il Trittico separately) only three take place in his native Italy, while both Madama Butterfly and Turandot are set in the Far East and La Fanciulla del West plays out in the equally remote American West. And in the cases of the latter three, the settings are not the only markers of the works’ foreignness; in crafting each opera, Puccini steeped himself in the music of each locale and incorporated existing melodies into the scores. For Butterfly, he even consulted with native Japanese speakers, including actress Sada Jacco, to gain a better sense of the timbre and range of their natural speaking voices.

It’s no surprise then that Puccini gravitated toward Turandot, and he pressed his librettists—Giuseppe Adami, who outlined the dramatic structure, and Simoni, who furnished the poetic verses—to create a text that was authentically Chinese. He requested numerous changes to Gozzi’s play, asking them to “find a Chinese element to enrich the drama and relieve the artificiality of it” and make use of what he called “Chinese syllables” and “assonances that would give it a Chinese flavor.”

This focus on “Chinese” sounds also extended to some of the characters’ names. The stock commedia dell’arte types—Brighella, Truffaldino, Pantalone, etc.—that acted as visitors to the Chinese court in Gozzi became the ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong, while Puccini also introduced a new ancestress for Turandot, Lou-Ling. More drastically, he urged Adami and Simoni to refashion Gozzi’s headstrong Tartar princess Adelma into Liù (another name of Puccini’s invention), the meek but noble slave girl who could easily stand alongside the composer’s other simultaneously vulnerable and dignified “little women”—Mimì, Cio-Cio-San, Lauretta, and others.

Even more than the libretto, though, Puccini sought a sense of authenticity in his musical characterization of legendary China. In August 1920, just months after Simoni first suggested Turandot, the composer famously paid a visit to Baron Edoardo Fassini-Camossi, a former diplomat in China, who owned a music box of genuine Chinese tunes. Three melodies from this music box ultimately found their way into the opera’s score, while others came from phonograph recordings and Jules A. van Aalst’s 1884 chronicle of Chinese music.

It was from Fassini’s music box that Puccini discovered the folk song “Mo Li Hua,” or “Jasmine Flower,” which was already familiar to European ears and had been included in travel guides as early as the end of the 18th century. In his hands, “Mo Li Hua” became the main theme used to represent Princess Turandot, first intoned by an offstage children’s choir in Act I before recurring many times throughout the opera in different guises and orchestrations. The music box also featured the traditional “Imperial Hymn,” which can be heard during the opera’s throne-room scenes as the people hail Emperor Altoum and wish him 10,000 years of life.

In these two cases, the Chinese melodies appear with few alterations, but as prominent Puccini biographer Mosco Carner points out, more often the composer’s incorporation of existing tunes takes the form of “freely varying certain exotic melodies … using them as models in the invention of similarly constructed melodies, or … lifting characteristic motives out of them in order to mold therefrom new melodic curves.” This occurs notably in the entrance of Ping, Pang, and Pong in Act I, as they attempt to dissuade Calàf from pursuing Turandot. Their opening melody (“Fermo! Che fai? T’arresta”) is drawn verbatim from another of the music box’s folk songs, but soon thereafter, Puccini weaves together bits and pieces of other authentic Chinese melodies as well as some of his own creation. According to Carner, “various motives become joined with one another in a kaleidoscopic way, [and] the whole passage … creates the impression of an underived, logically developed idea.”

The result is rather unlike any of the composer’s previous compositions. Gone are the intimate dramas and relatable passions of everyday people. These are instead replaced with dazzling spectacle, archetypal protagonists, and musical passages clearly influenced by innovative contemporaries such as Debussy, Stravinsky, and Wagner. A glance into the orchestra pit reveals a robust percussion section, encompassing not only xylophones, glockenspiel, and drums but also bells, celesta, tambourine, Japanese tam-tam, and a Chinese gong. And Puccini includes a number of musical “sound effects” to further heighten the feeling of foreignness, such as offstage brass and organ, harps muted with paper inserted between their strings, and saxophones to accompany the Act I children’s choir.

It’s not that Turandot’s score bears none of the hallmarks of Puccini’s lushly romantic style. Liù, the most (possibly only) sympathetic character in the piece, pours her heart out in Act I’s “Signore, ascolta”—an adaption of the pentatonic-based song “Sian Chok” that, in Puccini’s handling, becomes far more Italianate than Chinese—as well as in a compelling pair of arias in Act III. Not to mention the opera’s most recognizable selection, Calàf’s heroic Act III aria, “Nessun dorma,” which has become an anthem of hope and resilience far beyond the confines of the opera house. But according to musicologist Harold Powers, this “Romantic-diatonic Puccinian norm,” is just one of four primary “colors” in Turandot, the others being Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Dissonance.

We must also consider the criticisms that Turandot—and Puccini’s appropriation, reconfiguration, and reharmonization of Chinese music—has received in recent years. As Ping-hui Liao, a professor of literary and critical studies at the University of California, San Diego, argues, despite the composer’s attempts at authenticity, “when the material is drawn from another culture, as in the case of Madama Butterfly or Turandot, it is integrated and ordered so that it becomes intelligible, controlled, and agreeable … the melodies are so well integrated that they lose their own autonomy and become part of a larger whole. In distinguishing between East and West, [Puccini] makes the former subservient to the latter.” Or, as Carner wryly suggests, while the Chinese characters don “national musical costume throughout … this costume may bear the trademark ‘Made in Italy.’” It shouldn’t be surprising then that many audience members of Chinese descent find it difficult to watch as their own heritage is co-opted, fetishized, or painted as savage, bloodthirsty, or backward.

The question then becomes how to appreciate Turandot—which features some of Puccini’s most ravishing melodies, scenes of truly remarkable musical and theatrical grandeur, and opportunities for the kind of show-stopping vocal displays that lie at the core of the art form’s appeal—in a way that both celebrates its achievements and acknowledges the problems inherent in it. As we raise our collective consciousness of its faults, it is essential that, rather than shying away from the less-savory aspects of the opera, with each subsequent revival, audiences recognize and grapple with their implications. For only through awareness and conversation, which must increasingly expand to include a wider array of voices and points of view, can the world truly understand Turandot as the thrilling yet problematic masterpiece that it is.

Christopher Browner
is the Met’s Senior Editor.

At top: A scene from the 1926 United States premiere of Turandot at the Met