Go inside this production of Turandot with engaging articles, notes from the director, a complete plot synopsis, artist bios, and more.
TIME: Legendary antiquity
The people of Beijing hear a mandarin recite Princess Turandot’s decree: she will marry only the nobleman who can correctly answer three riddles. All who fail will be executed. The latest unsuccessful candidate, the Prince of Persia, will die this very day when the moon rises. It is now evening, and the excited crowd is eager to wake Pu-Tin-Pao, the executioner. Many people are nearly trampled, including Timur, the exiled king of Tartary. A young man rushes to him – his son, Calaf, who embraces the old man joyfully. Timur explains that Liù, the slave who is accompanying him, has been his guide and support. When Calaf asks why she chose to share his father’s suffering, Liù answers that it’s because the prince once smiled at her. Pu-Tin-Pao’s assistants prepare for the execution, and children lead in the procession. When the crowd sees the Prince of Persia, its scorn turns to pity. When Turandot appears, her beauty dazzles Calaf. Once she signals to proceed with the execution, the Prince of Persia is heard crying her name, but his voice cuts off: the execution has taken place. Despite the gruesome scene, Calaf is now obsessed with Turandot. He is about to strike the gong – the signal that a new suitor is ready to meet his fate – when Ping, Pang, and Pong confront him. These three ministers urge Calaf to return to his own country. Turandot’s handmaidens insist on silence, since she is sleeping. Timur and Liù plead with Calaf to turn away from this dangerous passion. The prince begs Liù to remain with his father, no matter what happens. Ignoring everyone’s protests, Calaf strikes the gong.
Scene 1. Ping, Pang, and Pong prepare for what may be a wedding or a funeral, depending on Calaf’s success or failure. Life was always smooth in China, they reflect, until the birth of Turandot. Since then, many unlucky suitors have lost their lives. Each minister longs to leave Beijing and enjoy a quieter existence. They ruminate on how wonderful it would be if love finally conquered Turandot. All three depart, since the ceremony of the riddles is about to begin.
Scene 2. The crowd cheers the arrival of the ministers and wise men. When Calaf appears, he is addressed by Turandot’s father, Emperor Altoum, who cannot persuade the prince to abandon his desire to win Turandot. The mandarin again summarizes the law regarding Turandot’s marriage. When she finally appears, she reveals that she cannot forget the story of her ancestor, Princess Lo-u-Ling: many years before, a conqueror of China dragged Lo-u-Ling from the palace and killed her. Turandot now will not let herself to be possessed by any man. The princess poses her three riddles, and each time Calaf answers correctly. When the crowd hears the third answer, it bursts with joy. Turandot implores her father not to yield her to the unknown prince, but Altoum insists that the law is sacred. Calaf now offers the princess a bargain: If Turandot can learn his name before dawn, he will release her and give up his life. If she is unsuccessful, she will have no choice but to belong to him.
Scene 1. Turandot’s heralds proclaim that no one may sleep that night; the unknown stranger’s name must be revealed by morning. Alone in the palace garden, the prince repeats, “No one may sleep” and looks forward to the dawn, when Turandot will be his. The ministers offer him beautiful women, sparkling gems, and fabulous adventures, if he will leave Beijing. They are concerned for their own lives, since no one knows where Turandot may strike in her desperation to learn the stranger’s name. City guards drag in Timur and Liù, whom they apprehended near the city walls. The crowd gathers before Turandot suddenly appears. She orders Timur to speak, and the guards are about to torture him when Liù declares that she alone knows the prince’s name and that she will keep it a secret. When Turandot orders that she be tortured, the guards twist her arms as Ping repeatedly demands the name, but she refuses to reveal it. When Turandot asks what gives her such strength, Liù answers that it is love. Before dawn, she says, her eyes will close forever and Turandot will love the prince. Seizing a dagger from a soldier, Liù stabs herself and falls lifeless. The stunned crowd carries her body away, accompanied by the heartbroken Timur, and leaving Turandot alone with Calaf. Furious at her coldness, the prince tears away the veil covering Turandot’s face. Ignoring her insistence that he not touch her, he kisses her passionately. Overwhelmed by new feelings, Turandot confesses that she is weeping her first tears. She begs the prince to leave her, taking his mystery with him, but he declares that he will now give her both his name and his life: he is Calaf, son of Timur. The ecstatic Turandot commands that he appear before the people with her.
Scene 2. Before her father and the people of Beijing, Turandot declares that she now knows the stranger’s name: “His name is Love!” Calaf ascends the staircase to embrace Turandot as the crowd joyfully sings love’s praises.
The operas of Puccini are a rich mine for a stage director. The characters, their motivations, their emotions, and the world they inhabit are vividly described in the score. Furthermore, the composer’s innate theatricality means that marrying stage action to the musical drama is usually a happy and fulfilling process.
After the failure of his second opera, Edgar (which suffered from a weak libretto and flawed plot), Puccini took great pains to ensure that his operas were as strong dramatically as they were musically, insisting on many revisions to the libretti, and subjecting the score to the refiner’s fire in rehearsal. The result, in his mature operas, are pieces of musical theater that are involving and engrossing, but masterfully tight and economic in their construction.
With Turandot Puccini took a brave new direction, choosing a fairy tale of intense fantasy far from the verismo aesthetic of his earlier pieces. A score that acknowledged modernism, the highly developed form of late-19th-century opera, and a story by Carlo Gozzi rooted in the tradition of commedia dell’arte were the thrilling ingredients. Puccini challenged himself and his librettists, Simoni and Adami. to create something new and extraordinary.
However, the further the opera’s creators pushed the envelope, the more difficult it became to bring the opera to a satisfactory conclusion. The motivations of the heroine are understandable, informed as they are by the example of her ancestor, but her transformation by a forced kiss is unsatisfactory, unsavory, even unpalatable, particularly to a modern audience.
While one can try to dismiss this problem by explaining that Turandot is a fairy story, and anything is possible in a fairy story, it is nonetheless the case that the most enduring fairy stories (fantastical though they may be) remain very real in their understanding of humanity. This story fails that test.
Puccini struggled for four years to finish the opera, insisting on revision after revision of the libretto. Up to his death, he remained dissatisfied with the conclusion and text of the final scene. The version of that scene completed shortly afterwards by Alfano drew on the composer’s sketches, but they were subject to Alfano’s own extensive editing and musical taste. It cannot be said to represent the master’s vision -- particularly in the finale, which Puccini indicated would be reflective in nature, far from the Hollywood treatment given it by Alfano. While Alfano’s conclusion is musically thrilling, it leaves one feeling compromised.
Every production starts with the score, but in this case the score does not present a complete vision. Each company must choose which of the various endings which have been proposed since Puccini’s death to present, or indeed, to present it unfinished as it famously was at its premiere.
Furthermore, in the 21st century we cannot ignore either the misogynistic portrayal of the female characters or the racial stereotyping of the Chinese in the piece. While Puccini’s world would not have found this at all jarring, a contemporary audience cannot help but question the sexism and Orientalism inherent in the piece.
This presents us with a unique theatrical challenge. A production of Turandot is, to some extent, an exercise in creation as we try to find a fitting conclusion to the opera that eluded Puccini himself for so long, while presenting the story in a way that does not patronize.
As I write, it is still some weeks before rehearsals for this production begin, but very soon artists will fly in from around the country and the globe, bringing with them their own deep understanding of this work from years of study and other productions.
Questioning and discussion is a vital part of any rehearsal process, but never more so that with this opera.
Our job in the rehearsal room will be to listen carefully to the score, seek out the heartbeat of Puccini, and ultimately offer our own solution to the final unanswered riddle of Turandot.
Rob Kearley, Director
Giacomo Puccini and Lyric Opera of Chicago go back together to the very beginning of the company, with La bohème and Tosca featured in our first season in 1954. The following season we produced our first Madama Butterfly, in 1956 came La fanciulla del West, and then in 1958 we presented our first production of the most formidable of all the Puccini operas, his mighty Turandot, which we’re delighted to welcome back to the Lyric stage this season.
From those early years to today, Lyric has gone the extra mile to bring authenticity of style and powerful theatricality to the Puccini operas, and Turandot is no exception. This company has always recognized the unique appeal of Puccini’s last opera, with its astoundingly atmospheric and brilliantly colorful orchestration, its massively scaled choral episodes (quite atypical for Puccini, whom we don’t normally associate with choral music), and above all, the opportunities he gave the principal artists.
We come away from Turandot with the sound of Calaf’s “Nessun dorma” still ringing in our ears – it’s no surprise that this has become the world’s favorite tenor aria, used in any number of movies, commercials, and televised voice competitions – but it’s doubly exciting to hear it fulfilling its proper dramatic function within the opera itself. In contrast, the exquisitely delicate arias of the slave Liù invariably reduce listeners to tears with their sweetness and sheer heart. Puccini composed some of his liveliest music for the three ministers, Ping, Pang, and Pong. And, of course, we have the awe-inspiring title character – the “ice princess” Turandot, whose big scene in Act Two contains genuinely hair-raising music that leaves any audience breathless with excitement
It’s been very gratifying for all of us at Lyric to follow the career of Ryan Opera Center alumna Amber Wagner, culminating in her star-making performance as Senta in The Flying Dutchman at the Metropolitan Opera last season. Having already captivated Lyric audiences in four leading roles, she has returned to us this season to star as Turandot. Opposite her is Stefano La Colla, one of the most promising in the new generation of Italian tenors and now making his Lyric debut as Calaf. Along with the return to our stage of Andrea Silvestrelli as Timur, you can look forward to the debuts of the two sopranos who share the role of Liù, Maria Agresta and Janai Brugger, who have been hailed as dazzling new stars at many major houses internationally.
I’m thrilled that our remarkable music director, Sir Andrew Davis, is returning to Turandot, an opera that brought him great success when he conducted it here during the 2006/07 season. On the podium to lead the final performance of the run will be Robert Tweten, who has led a wide variety of operatic repertoire with major companies throughout North America.
With ancient China giving extraordinary scope for the imagination, Turandot has always been a priceless gift to any talented designer. An example is one of American opera companies’ most distinguished designers, Allen Charles Klein, whose captivating vision of Turandot has been applauded by audiences all over the country. With Rob Kearley’s new staging, the magnificence of Lyric’s chorus and orchestra, and our topflight cast, this is sure to be a Turandot in the grand Lyric tradition.
General Director, President & CEO
The Women’s Board Endowed Chair
Puccini’s final opera, Turandot, written between 1920 and 1924, was widely considered a success, and yet most found its eponymous heroine truly enigmatic. In the intervening century, we’ve struggled to make sense of Turandot and the opera, and Puccini’s intentions. Turandot isn’t romantic and doesn’t follow the verismo tradition, with its emphasis on realistic stories about ordinary people who love each other with supreme passion. Instead, the opera seems to make assumptions that we, in the 21st century, find shocking and culturally insensitive. Dualities seem to underpin the tale, and its message seems elusive. Did Puccini favor one of his protagonists? Or did he die before he could decide how to complete this perplexing work? Understanding Puccini’s worldview may help unpack issues of cultural stereotypes, orientalism, and misogyny, which seem embedded in the work.
Turandot finds its source in Venetian dramatist Carlo Gozzi’s play, Turandotte (1762), itself taken from a Persian story in Les Mille et un jours by François Pétis de la Croix (1721). Puccini was not the first to utilize the story for opera: his teacher, Antonio Joseph Bazzini, wrote Turanda (1867) and Ferruccio Busoni Turandot (1917). Puccini, who hadn’t heard Busoni’s opera, instructed his librettists, Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, “Put all your strength into [the libretto], all the resources of your heads and hearts, and create for me something which will make the world weep. They say that emotionalism is a sign of weakness, but I like to be weak! To the strong, so-called, I leave the triumphs that fade; for us, those that endure.” That statement seems surprising indeed, considering what the opera and its heroine turned out to be.
Following Puccini’s death, the muchanticipated premiere of Turandot took place at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala on April 25, 1926. The opera had been completed by Franco Alfano, whom the Ricordi publishing house and conductor Arturo Toscanini commissioned to create the ending by shaping the extensive sketches Puccini had left. On opening night, however, after the death of Liù, Toscanini faced the audience and announced, “At this point the Master laid down his pen.” In his final music, Liù’s funeral procession, many critics would claim, Puccini remained true to himself, that is, to his pre-Turandot self.
Perhaps the biggest question the opera raises is whether Turandot, silent until Act Two, can be seen as emblematic of Puccini’s intentions for the meaning of the opera as a whole. With her coldness and rigid appearance, what cultural values does she represent? Are we meant to have compassion for her? What is Puccini saying about the apparent decline of the human in the Machine Age? Was he making a deliberate, if tentative, move towards updating his operatic style, exploring the ways in which opera might connect with modernist preoccupations evident in the other arts?
Turandot’s malice didn’t disturb the critics, but her mechanical nature did. Puccini didn’t intend us to empathize with her, making her the antithesis of what Italian operagoers expected. Identification with the characters had always been Italian opera’s goal, what audiences desired. Puccini said he planned “a Turandot filtered through the modern mind”; he intended her as a fitting emblem of her time. “I wanted something human, and when the heart speaks, whether in China or Holland, it says only one thing, and the outcome is the same for everyone….” — Giacomo Puccini, 1924 METROPOLITAN OPERA ARCHIVES In crafting her, Puccini drew on futurism, an avant-garde artistic and social movement founded in Milan in 1909, glorifying modernity and emphasizing technology over humanity. Turandot can be understood as fitting within the context of futurist Italian theater development. In the early 1920s, to be “mechanical” was to be modern, if inhuman. Inspired by the marionettelike figures of commedia dell’arte, puppets – literal and metaphorical – inhabited the stage; puppets, robots, and masked figures became avant-garde emblems. Futurist theater’s machine-like characters had a mechanistic style of declamation without human emotion.
In futurism, war and patriotism became linked themes. Michael Steinberg theorized, “The delivery of opera to spectacle is also its delivery to fascism, to its aesthetic of power through spectacle.” In Gozzi’s Turandotte, the crowds contained slave-women, eunuchs, soldiers, and priests; Puccini’s crowds were homeless Chinese needing leadership and direction, and could be analogized to post-WorldWar-I Italians awaiting a leader like Mussolini.
Puccini believed Italy needed Mussolini’s firm hand. Turandot seems to reinforce what fascists considered “deviant” women; “deviants” were femmes fatales or working women who challenged men by disobeying their husbands and remaining childless. Puccini described Turandot as a “tiny viperous woman” (“donnina viperina”) with the heart of a hysteric (“un cuore strano di isterica.”) The librettists gave her pride (“orgoglio”), a domineering attitude, an arrogant gaze, and imperious gestures, but the dramatic change that Turandot brought to Puccini’s operatic style troubled audiences and critics because it represented a retreat from the emotionalism of his gentle and suffering heroines (Butterfly, Mimì, Tosca), who had been a characteristic, integral aspect of his work. Puccini felt Italian culture was under attack as weak and “feminized” and aimed to counter this notion by elevating a strong, mechanistic, rigid Turandot.
Turandot contrasts strongly with the sympathetic slave, Liù. In her, Puccini created a character who (especially in her first aria, “Signore ascolta”), provided the lyricism listeners craved. Why must Liù die? Puccini’s librettists created this self-sacrificial heroine especially for him. Undoubtedly, the warm Liù represents Puccini’s past strengths, while cruel, mechanical Turandot points to a colder future. The contrast between Liù and Turandot artistically replicates the tension between traditionalism and modernism in the early twentieth century. Symbolically, must Liù die so that beauty will not haunt the living?
Gozzi’s play presented Turandot as purely malicious. Puccini retained essential parts of Gozzi’s version, although he and his librettists simplified its complicated plot and invented Turandot’s ancestress to justify her unremitting cold behavior. In Puccini’s version, Turandot gradually becomes more understandable and sympathetic, and as in a fairy tale, she is released from revenge’s stranglehold and restored to humanity with Prince’s Calaf’s kiss.
The play’s adherence to commedia dell’arte traditions included having actors wearing masks, negating their individuality. Gozzi's 32 | December 5, 2017 - January 27, 2018 work combined fantasy, caricature, and stock characters, which were paired with extravagant sets. He intended his play to illustrate the righteousness and power of all-conquering love. Puccini also employed masks as a significant element, paired with distinctive music evoking the jerky movements of marionettes. The German playwright Friedrich Schiller, who adapted Gozzi’s play, pointed out a puppetlike quality common to all Gozzi’s characters, not only those designated as masks: “The figures have the appearance of marionettes operated by wires; there is a certain pedantic stiffness running through the whole thing.” By the mid-1920s, puppets, robots, and masked figures had become avant-garde emblems, icons of a moment of cultural crisis, particularly appropriate for Puccini’s aims.
Puccini’s Ping, Pang, and Pong are derived from Gozzi’s masks; they act like a mini Greek chorus, observing and commenting, testing characters’ thoughts and motivations. In their trio in the first scene of Act Two, they remark on Turandot’s identity as the feminine destroyer of men, national identity, and culture. Puccini wanted authentic Chinese music not only for this trio but to use throughout. He wrote to Adami, “I shall get some old Chinese music...and drawings of different instruments which we shall put on the stage (not in the orchestra).” He took four melodies from J. A. van Aalst’s book Chinese Music and included melodies from a Chinese music box he received from his friend Baron Fassini Camossi, the former Italian ambassador to China, assigning the longest of the melodies to Ping, Pang, and Pong. He consulted ethno-musicological texts, studied transcriptions of Chinese music, and listened to a large number of phonograph recordings of Chinese music; he assimilated elements from them, transforming them with his own personal idiom.
He expanded the traditional Chinese folk song “Mo-li-hua,” and treated it thematically throughout; it made its first and lengthiest appearance in Act One, in the children’s chorus; it’s heard every time Turandot appears and is repeated when Calaf cries out her name in Act One. Although Puccini used Chinese music for Chinese characters, he had no alternative but to write tonal music for the non-Chinese characters, which serves, metaphorically, to accentuate the exoticism of Turandot and the Europeanness of Calaf and Liù, especially evident in the Romantic music of Liù’s funeral cortege.
In Act One, Turandot’s muteness has dramatic logic but compounds her perceived inhumanity. In the second scene of Act Two, when she finally sings, she doesn’t reveal her character, although the story she tells justifies her behavior. Her hatred of men is passionately invoked when she recounts that a foreign prince raped and murdered her ancestor, Princess Lo-u-ling. She believes it her sacred duty to avenge that cruelty and plans revenge against all foreigners for the insult to Lo-u-Ling’s purity. Turandot has additional reason to resent men: in ancient Eastern cultural traditions, maledominated society considered women inferior, at times enslaving them or using them merely for sexual gratification.
Critics have pointed out that Italy’s colonialist attempts in Libya – its determination to impose Christian and classical identity onto that country’s Islamic and Arab identity and the issue of the colonizer-colonized relationship – are implicit symbolically in Puccini’s opera and are complicated by the racial and religious differences of Turandot and the Prince of Persia, Calaf, and Liù. The opera engages tensions and dichotomies at all levels: between the two principal women, between the human and the machine, between two stylistic manners, between past and present, between what Puccini may have intended and what the critics perceived. Contrasts between Calaf’s Central Asian identity and Turandot’s Chinese identity, between his exile and her stability, and between his humanity and her cruelty are central to the opera’s meaning.
Calaf’s role has great significance: he asserts his masculine authority when he solves Turandot’s riddles. Calaf’s initial marginalized masculine identity, a result of his being an exile, highlights what can be seen as Chinese “orientalization” of other cultures, a symbol of the racial theory that circulated in Italy in the early twentieth century.
wentieth century. Orientalism usually now refers to the West’s patronizing attitude toward Middle Eastern, Asian, and North African societies in the ways that the West imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates, and distorts their differences and cultures, often seeing them as a combination of exotic, backward, uncivilized, and even dangerous. (Implicit in orientalism is the belief that the West is rational and hence superior.) The display of Calaf’s humanity is set against Turandot’s inflexibility, her staunch Chinese identity, and her cruelty. Turandot’s allegiance to her ancestor and nation-state also reflects then-current Western imperialist and orientalist notions about China. The ministers, in their Act-Two trio “Ho una casa nell’ Honan,” explicitly reveal the racial thinking behind the comparison between Chinese and Central Asian identity. And yet, ironically, the character of Calaf thematically serves as a metaphor for the remaking of Italian masculinity and the building of an Italian empire. (Italy had annexed Eritrea , declared Somalia a colony , annexed Libya and the Dodecanese islands in Greece [1912, after the Italo-Turkish War].)
Puccini declared that uncovering “the amorous passion of Turandot which she has smothered for so long beneath the ashes of her pride…is the goal of the opera.” He allowed Romantic sentiment to share the limelight with the grandiose, sumptuous, mechanistic, and exotic, but finally, he wanted gender, race, and nationalist issues to yield to universality, allowing geographical and cultural barriers to fall, toppled by the universal language of love, which conquers all.
Susan Halpern has been writing program notes and liner notes nationally and internationally for chamber music, symphonic concerts, operas, and vocal recitals for the past two decades. Originally trained as a professional flutist, she earned a B. A. in music and a doctorate in English literature and has taught at the City College of New York, Pace University, and Marymount College. She currently writes program notes fulltime.