Puccini's Opera Turandot

Italian composer Giacomo Puccini's last masterpiece before his death, Turandot, the opera that salutes the power of love.

Giacomo Puccini was born in 1858, the son of the musical director of the Cathedral of S. Martino in Lucca. Though Puccini might have been inclined toward music as a profession through his own discretion, there was never a thought that he would do otherwise as it was assumed he would carry on family tradition. Though Puccini received training in various areas of music, including chamber music and organ, his true love was the opera. He is remembered as a master of operatic realism.

Puccini's first operas were true to 19th Century Italian harmonies with drama that portrayed balance of action. Puccini's operas were strong in emotional appeal and conflict, but they also contained gentler segments of repose and reflection. An example of such balance is suggested by Puccini's "farewell" and "death" arias that are marked with passionate lyrical melodies contrasted against underlying tones of morbidity.

Toward the end of his career, Puccini was influenced by the compositions of Rimsky-Korsakov, Strauss, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky, early forerunners of the Impressionistic Music Era. As Impressionistic music diverged from traditional harmonies, Puccini endeavored to assimilate a more contemporary style into the writing of "Turandot," an opera based on Italian dramatist's Carlo Gozzi's play by that name. Puccini's "Turandot" is by far his most grand opera, replete with climaxes, choruses, and full pageantry.

Princess Turandot, according to the fable that served as Gozzi's inspiration, lived in the City of Peking. She was destined to marry but had pledged to thwart any attempts of suitors because of an ancestor's abduction by a prince and resultant death. With each suitor, Turandot posed three riddles. If the suitor answered all three riddles correctly, he won the hand of the princess. If he failed, he lost his head.

Act I opens as the Prince of Persia, who has failed to answer Turandot's riddles, is being escorted to the execution block. Calaf, a handsome prince in his own right, notices a slave girl who is attending to her fallen master. When Calaf approaches the scene, he recognizes his father whom he has not seen in many years. After a sentimental reunion, the threesome turn their attention to the execution, joining others in the crowd who are calling for Princess Turandot's reprieve of execution for the Prince of Persia. The princess does appear; however, there is no reprieve. She orders the execution to proceed.

In Act II, Calaf believes that Turandot's heart can be conquered by love, and against the objections of his newly found father, he presents himself as a suitor. Having successfully answered the Princess's questions, Calaf turns the tide and becomes the author of his own challenge: if Turandot can learn his true identity by dawn, he will forfeit his life. Turandot is enraged and in Act III issues a proclamation to the city, prohibiting the sleep of anyone until she can discover the name of the young prince. Frightened by their princess's obvious rage, some of the people of Peking surround Calaf and draw daggers to intimidate him. Others race to find the old man with whom he had been seen earlier. Soon they have brought his father and the slave girl who serves him to the scene. Princess Turandot herself appears and orders that the girl be tortured. Though the torture is intense, the young girl will not give up Calaf's name. Turandot is impressed by the girl's endurance and asks her secret. The girl replies, "It is love." Calaf tears Turandot's veil from her face and kisses her. The princess gives way to tears and Calaf knows he has broken through the barrier that has kept her heart shut from all emotion. The chorus applauds the power of love.

Puccini was suffering from cancer of the throat as he endeavored to complete his Turandot masterpiece. He lacked the composition of a final duet between Calaf and Turandot when he died post-surgery in Brussels. Puccini's colleague, Franco Alfano, completed the duet as well as a finale, using Puccini's notes and sketches. The opera was first performed in 1926, two years after Puccini's death.

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