God only knows when, but to be sure long, long ago, as in every fairy-tale once upon a time there was the icy princess Turandot.
For the first time the Persian author Nizami, somewhere he is indicated as Azerbaijan writer, told in the 12th century the saying about the Chinese princess Turandot. Later, in the 18th century she appeared in different collections of Persian fairy-tales, where from the Italian dramaturge Carlo Gozzi created his “Tales for the Theatre”.
Forty years later, Friedrich Schiller “retold” the written by Gozzi in the spirit of the traditions of “Comedia del arte” amusing story, but already with emphasized dramatic tension of the action, with consolidation and differentiation of the nature ofthe characters, importing some mystic and tension in the central scene with Turandot’s riddles.
In 1919 Puccini visited a spectacle of “Deutsche Theater” in Berlin, where was presented Schiller’s play “Turandot”. Let’s remind us of another similar good fortune – in the life of Puccini, it was as if they were predetermined, when 20 years ago, in 1899 he saw Sarah Bernardt in Paris, in the play by Victorien Sardou “Tosca”, which became the occasion for the creation of his masterpiece, the opera “Tosca”.
And again the same result – the idea about an opera. Together with the librettists, the dramaturge Giuseppe Adami and the poet Renato Simone, Puccini took part directly in the development of the libretto, with concrete views of the scenic situations, of the movement schemes, the interweaving of the dramatic motives.
In his verses of that time he wrote:
“I am trudging bent/ my old age is heavy for me/ before me gapes an abyss/ and death is stalking me”.
In such an inconsolable and gloomy mood he began writing “Turandot”!
The work was difficult; it advanced, but very slowly.
Significantly slower than the fatal disease – cancer of the throat. At the hospital, where the surgeons implanted him special radium nails in the throat, Puccini turned himself to them with a notice – give me just 20 more days!
The disease didn’t defeat him, but alas – it left him behind.
The action of the opera takes place in Peking, the time is legendary. The place is on the square in front of the Imperial Palace. Princess Turandot has announced that she would marry the one who will answer her three riddles, but the one who tries without succeeding, will have to give up his life. Many young men have already become victim of her cruelty. The crowd is expecting the next execution of a young Persian prince and is begging the princess to spare his life. On the square is also the unknown prince Calàf. The guards appear, they disperse the crowd. One old man falls on the ground and a young girl is asking for help. Calàf comes to the aid and discovers, that it was his father, the dethroned Tartarian king Timur, accompanied by the faithful girl slave Liù, who falls in love with Calàf. At that moment appears the dazzling Turandot and when Calàf sees her, he is overcome by strong love and he has already taken his decision – he will win Turandot or pay with his life. In spite of the supplications of his father, of Liù and of the three ministers Ping, Pang and Pong, who are quite interesting and important characters for the action, Calàf rushes to the gong and announces his decision with three strikes.
Everybody spends an anxious night, filled with tormenting questions – what will bring the new day, wedding or death. Will at last come somebody who would answer Turandot’s riddles. The decisive moment comes, everybody is again on the square and they again plead Calàf to give up. Turandot appears, she tells a tragic story, which happened to her in her childhood and which was the reason for her hatred for all men, and after that she begins boldly with her questions.
The first riddle is – What is this bright vision, which is born each night and locks men and dies each dawn, in order to arise again in the night?
This is hope, after short reflection replies Calàf.
A quiet wave of hope spreads among the crowd. The court of seniors acknowledges the answer. Confused, Turandot asks her second question – What burns like a flame, but is not a flame: when man deceases, it gets cold, and when one wins – it glitters like the sun?
Calàf thinks for a moment – This is blood!
Turandot, seized with rage, asks her third, last riddle –
What is this, which seems like ice, but freezes by fire, if you are free, it keeps you in slavery, and if you become its slave, you turn into a king?
Calàf is confused, Turandot triumphs and already sees herself as winner. You will give up your life too, foreigner! But Calàf replies –
This is you, Turandot!
The wise men acknowledge the answer, Turandot is shocked by the unexpected victory of the unknown prince. Having lost her haughtiness, she begs her father not to give her to him for wife, but the emperor refuses. In that moment Calàf decides to ask Turandot his own riddle – if Turandot learns until dawn his name, she can take his head. Night has come, everyone supplicates Calàf to leave the capital. The guards bring in the palace Calàf’s father and Liù, in order to learn something from them. In this moment Liù grasps the knife from the butcher’s belt and stabs herself in the heart, in order to save her beloved one. The butchers carry away the next dead body of Turandot. In the east appear the first sunbeams, Calàf holds out his hand to Turandot, which she rejects. Then he takes her into his arms and the miracle has happened, his kiss melts the ice in Turandot. He tells her his name and they both set out for the emperor’s palace.
Love is the light of the world, with these words ends the opera.
“I would like to write an opera about love, life and death, said Puccini. I would like to give vent to all my pain, inspiration and philosophy, I am seeking the words and melodies, which will ascend in heaven”.
“Turandot” is a drama of the strong passions, shown on a picturesque colourful background, where bizarrely are combining the east splendour and exuberance with the bloody cruelty, the reality with the symbols. The miniature lyric vocal expressions, painting the experiences of the main characters alternate with imposing mass scenes with powerfully sounding choruses /something not so usual for him/, brightly tinted orchestral episodes. The musical language of the opera is complex. The composer relied on the modern achievements of harmony, on polytonality in some moments, on the breaking up of the rhythm. In a great extent on the exceptional voice qualities of Turandot and Calàf. Which unequivocally inspired the great desire of Puccini to create the perfect opera.
During the days of the long-expected and sometimes painful meetings with the librettists for the next scene, he ceaselessly corrected something from Act one, some accord or one single note. Everything had to be perfect. He studied most carefully the Chinese folklore, the Chinese instruments, which he used subsequently in the orchestra.
At that time he listened much to the radio. Everywhere, on all radio stations sounded his operas. In a certain moment he stopped listening to them, overtaken only by the music of Turandot, as if obsessed by the despotic daughter of the Chinese emperor.
Even at night in his sleep, he was writing and saw her on the balcony with her snow white face, covered with diamonds, looking at him with a smile, with which she was as if giving him a sign, that he must go, to strike three times the glittering gong. So wishes Turandot! So wishes Calàf, heard he in his sleep.
He saw them, talked with them, lived with them. Nobody else was able to be so inspired as Puccini, to live in continuous thrill, with enthusiasm, with such tempo, with so much fantasy.
Sometimes he shifted his feelings on Liù, in some moments he was even in love with her. The little Liù, said he, who sacrificed her life for the happiness of her beloved. Liù, who together with Manon, Mimi, Butterfly, Angelica... didn’t do acts of heroism, were not dressed in luxury, didn’t carry expensive jewellery, but they did everything, they even sacrificed their proud in the name of their love.
This was the indomitable credo of Puccini, his philosophy, which he firmly defended – the bad must be requited, the good – to have all our respects!
On 29 November 1924 La Scala di Milano met the dawn with an enormous black crape on the facade. The great Giacomo is dead, the news about Puccini’s dead spread quickly. It is incredible: the enthusiastic, fallen in love with life Giacomo, in whom passion was burning isn’t there anymore, were whispering the passers-by. Whole Milan went into mourning, whole Italy was grieving, the world was lamenting for him. At the opera houses the spectacles were put off, the singers stopped singing, the conductors stopped conducting. “That was the kindest person” said his thousands friends. “He was our composer”. During his whole life he protected the poor ones, the pursued ones.
In the beginning of September of the same year, Puccini met Arturo Toscanini. At this meeting he played the opera scores, even helping himself with his ill voice. Anticipating his end and the short time left for completing Turandot, he showed him 36 pages with notes about the music of the missing final and asked Toscanini to give them to Franco Alfano, his student, who completed the work.
And it happened so.
On 26 April 1926 took place the premiere of Turandot at La Scala di Milano. What a premiere! The house was filled with sad faces, the men with black neckties, the women in dark dresses, no jewellery, no flowers. Toscanini went to the conductor’s stand, the opera began. After the end of Act I, instead of applauses cries could be heard. By the end of Act III, after Liù’s death aria, Toscanini sank his arms, the orchestra stopped, he turned to the audience and said: “At this place death took away the pen from the hands of the maestro”.
Everybody was roused, there was dead silence. Toscanini left the stage.
The world has hardly ever seen such a spectacle.