The ending of Puccini’s “Turandot” is one of opera’s great tragedies. The composer, at the peak of his power, had composed his most musically daring work to date with some of his most phenomenal strokes of dramatic genius alongside some of his most riveting and enduring melodies.
And yet, when he was ever so close to completing it, he hit a creative slump and eventually succumbed to an illness that prevented him from overcoming it.
A New Perspective Through A Revised Ending
We know how the story goes from there. Franco Alfano, aided by Arturo Toscanini, devised an ending based on the sketches Puccini left behind. While effective, it ultimately failed to convince of the psychological transformation that the main heroine undergoes at the work’s climax.
Years later, there have been other attempts to create a more effective ending, none more successful than Luciano Berio’s, which is presented in Decca’s new release of the opera from the Teatro Alla Scala.
In this writer’s opinion, Berio’s ending is far more intriguing than Alfano’s offering more psychological depth and better pacing to the final confrontation. The kiss, which bombastic and sudden in Alfano, gets a slower buildup, a subtle nudge to Wagner and Puccini’s own desire that this be his “Tristan” moment. After the kiss, an orchestral interlude allows for Turandot’s psychology to come to the fore. As staged by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Turandot, here played by Nina Stemme, moves about the stage picking up the fragments of her costume that had just been ripped off, reflecting on who she was and whether she remains that same rigid and closed-off human being.
The ending lacks the bombast of the final Alfano chorus with its victorious reprise of the “Nessun Dorma” theme. While a show-stopper for audiences, it also seems rather lacking in creativity and risk, a hallmark of Puccini’s work on the opera as a whole. Berio excises the chorus and ends the opera on a series of quiet, sustained notes that generate emotional ambiguity. While a fairy tale, it is impossible to overlook the fact that both characters are rather unhealthy from a psychological standpoint. The hero, Calaf, has a suicidal obsession with Turandot, while she is frigid, guarded and violent. A happy ending just doesn’t seem and shouldn’t be all that easy.
The Scala production is rather bare in its set, with a box-like structure featuring two levels and a massive circular window dominating the center of the stage. Color is employed throughout to create mood, the palette jumping from blue to red and to black to create a mix of violence and serenity. The costuming hints at Ancient China, but the bareness of the stage leaves the mind open for re-interpretation and imagination.
Where the True Dramatic Substance Comes From
The performances all translate poignantly on camera, particularly the two leading ladies. Stemme’s Turandot is an imposing figure, her rigid stance, unflinching gaze and robotic walk making her stand out in major contrast to everyone on stage. She is unattainable, but that sense comes from how she distances herself from others in her behavior and aura. The costume she wears, a massive black cloak, a dark veil and a heavy and awkward headpiece add to the sense of her uniqueness. Just looking at her is uncomfortable, especially with the red noose she carries around. Her rendition of “In Questa Reggia” drives home the characterization with rather precise and even harsh singing, every consonant accented brutally and every ascension into the soprano stratosphere vicious and even violent. It is thrilling to view and delineates a very clear perspective on this most brutal of characters. The veil shields us from her eyes in close-ups, shielding her humanity and making her feel all the more unempathetic. But during Liù’s famous third act scene, the restrained and precise movements gives way to wilder ones, the violence growing, but the unsteadiness building as well. And in the final duet, she comes completely undone as Aleksandrs Antonenko’s Calaf strips her down garment by garment until all she wears is a silky black dress that exposes a more vulnerable self. Her face is alight with confusion, hints of smiles being immediately eradicated by anguish. As she moves around during the aforementioned interlude to reflect on her current stage, the agitation builds. During these moments, Stemme’s plush legato takes over, the singing freed from the sharp edge it had wielded in earlier scenes. But for a moment, as she remarks on finally knowing Calaf’s true name, that hard sound comes back, a hint that the transformation is not necessarily complete.
Maria Agresta’s Liù is a remarkable counterpart to Stemme’s brutal Turandot. Dressed in pure white and moving about with a timid gait, we immediately see Liù’s fragility and pathos all in one. Her delicate singing imbues the harsh imagery with a sense of repose, especially during moments where she floats high notes with sublime tenderness. This is best exemplified at the end of her Act 1 aria, “Signore Ascola,” the passage ending on a sustained high note. The same goes for her famed third act, where close-ups allow the viewer to connect with Agresta’s pained expressions that match up beautifully with her lush and silky legato. But the camera does manage to capture some defiant glances she throws toward Turandot, giving the sense of her internal strength and foreshadowing the tragedy to come.
Antonenko’s piercing eyes delineate his Calaf as a potentially destructive risk-taker and his potent singing marks Calaf not as a suave prince, but a rough one. He manages all of Calaf’s vocal demands with relative ease, his singing most pleasing in the middle registers. His forays into the upper stratosphere are marked by wide vibrato, particularly at the apex of “Nessun Dorma,” but the result is quite thrilling in its edginess, a trait that supports his characterization. One of the most revealing moments in the production for the Latvian tenor comes during the final duet where his full potential as an actor is completely unlocked. The violent potential is fully realized, his deathly stare as he mutters “Principessa” growing in intensity as his voice does in repeated utterances. He stands up and starts moving toward her, his movement heavy and decisive, almost as if he is ready to throw her down. The entire seduction comes off as rather forceful and dangerous and when he finally gets the kiss, a medium shot captures a smile of satisfaction. This is not a man truly in love, but more likely in lust that has just come one step closer to getting that which he has been desiring this entire time. There is a sardonic quality in latter moments that reminds one of his famed Otello during the third act duet with Desdemona, but those are counteracted with moments of tenderness, such as when he holds the fallen Turandot in his arms, his singing more subdued and polished than what has come before. This depth of characterization, coupled with Stemme’s own internal struggle, makes that final duet arguably the most compelling moment in the video recording.
Angelo Veccia, Roberto Covatta and Blagoj Nacoski all contribute to making the trio of Ping, Pong and Pang navigate complex territories of black humor and sadism. These aren’t people you look to laugh at, but instead vile monsters that might be more repulsive than the violent master they serve.
As Altoum, Carlo Bosi sings beautifully and compels with his fragile account of Calaf’s blind father.
In the pit Riccardo Chailly makes this familiar score, suddenly new and refreshing, bringing out some often obscured orchestral colors. The top of Act 2 is perhaps the most notable example, a double harp glissando riding loudly on the bouncing rhythm. The balancing of voices and orchestra throughout the performance is top-notch, the viewer never feeling that one overpowers the other.
Some Risks Pay Off, Others Don’t
The filmmaking itself seems to settle in around the second act after some interesting risk-taking throughout the first act. Oftentimes, these choices work while they flop badly in other instances. The “Gira la Cote” chorus is marked by frenetic cutting and dissolving, the giant flame onstage shot in extreme close-up and used as an alternating image with everything around it. The chorus, which dances around the flame is shot from a number of angles, including an eagle-eye perspective that is awkward and off-putting most of the time it is used. The quick cuts and organized chaos approach makes a lot of sense, but the execution leaves a lot to be desire. Instead of building into the rampant cutting the way the music does, the decision to be chaotic from the outset wears out its welcome.
This section is immediately followed by a contrasting chorus, the gentle “Perché tarda la luna?” Dissolves and fade outs are the chosen tactics here and they work quite splendidly, giving the sense of otherworldliness. A well-placed eagle-eye shot, Calaf at the center surrounded by the chorus in circular formation creates a dizzying effect that matches up with the magical nature of the music.
Perhaps the best editing of the first act comes during Calaf’s enunciation of the title character’s name. As everyone begs him to resist the urge to call Turandot, the character zooms out from a tight close-up to a massive wide shot, driving the point that Calaf’s decision has massive proportions. But then it cuts to a close-up as he utters the name for the first time. Then it cuts to a medium shot on the second call and finally a large wide shot at the third utterance, the rhythmic precision of the editing delivering emotional blows that match up with the fear and torment of the other characters on stage. Then, to drive it all home in truly breath-taking fashion, we get the three gong hits, cut between two different shots. The first and third shot shows Calaf striking the golden door, but it is the second that has emotional potency. As Calaf strikes the door a second time, we get a shot of a falling Liù, an image that foreshadows her fate at the hands, literally, of Calaf.
The second act is not rife with the flashy editing of the first act, but its strategy of medium and close-up shot for Turandot and Calaf’s encounter gives it the feel of a cage fight, the intensity growing with tighter close-ups, the relief coming from wider ones.
The third act proceeds in a similar fashion, though there is one final stroke of editorial genius. After Liù dies and the final notes that Puccini wrote coming to a close, the camera fades to black before a fade in brings about Berio’s music. It is a bold move, almost inviting the viewer to acknowledge the shift in musical perspective. It also does honor to Toscanini’s gesture on the opera’s premiere when he put down his baton at this moment and ended the performance.
This performance lives up to that legacy, giving viewers a daring and probing account of one of opera’s greatest gems.