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Hollow swan-song

Spectator, The, Mar 22, 2003 by Tanner, Michael


Turandot Act III


Puccini's Turandot is routinely allotted the honour of being the last opera in the great Italian opera tradition, though there have been some highly respectable works since, even some in the rich melodic vein which Puccini cultivated so brilliantly. Partly, one feels, it must be because it was his last work and because he failed -- almost certainly was unable - to finish it that Turandot has achieved its iconic status. For it is such a hollow and fundamentally uninteresting work that if it weren't the swan-song of the last grand maestro it would surely not have maintained a leading position in the repertoire. Musically it is Puccini's most adventurous work, but that means little, since one of his distinctions is to make so much out of conventional materials. And though it lacks the final climactic scene, in which Turandot yields to Calaf when she has tasted his kiss, which is matter for regret, it may also have been the opera's salvation, since while Princess Turandot has three riddles (which have always struck me as very easy to answer) Turandot has one enormous one -- would Puccini have pulled it off, as Alfano, who wrote the final scene in short order, understandably didn't?

One person who feels that Alfano's ending is not only inadequate but downright offensive is Luciano Berio, and his alternative ending has now been performed from LA to Salzburg, and received its British premiere in a strangely designed BBC Symphony Orchestra programme, in a concert performance. In the interval there was a good broadcast feature about the new ending, with Berio himself making some intelligent contributions, though the singer of Calaf, Dennis O'Neill, was still more acute. All the participants agreed that Alfano's solution to the problem of making Calaf's kiss sufficiently momentous is an utter failure, and a distasteful one - it sounds rather like Fafner's killing of Fasolt: a piled-up chord is followed by heavy bass-drum thwacks and then silence, and the miracle of melting the Princess's heart of ice has apparently been accomplished. Roger Parker rightly pointed out that this music is more suitable for a rape than a conversion, though it was precisely the act of making convincing Turandot's change of heart, or acquisition of one, that caused Puccini's block.

What none of the contributors remarked was that the notion of love is not, to put it gently, profoundly investigated in this score or in the text: it's what the little slave-girl Liu has for Calaf, because he once looked at her, and it enables her to endure being tortured to death while he stands by (all he needs to do is to say what his name is), and in one of the opera's few touching moments, the moved Turandot asks her what gives her strength. But the love of Liu has no relation to what Calaf unleashes in Turandot. Even the restrained Julian Budden, in his excellent new book on Puccini, writes that `Nothing in the text of the final duet suggests that Calaf's love for Turandot amounts to anything more than a physical obsession: nor can the ingenuities of Simoni and Adami's text for "Del primo pianto" convince us that the Princess's submission is any less hormonal'; yet `Turandot remains unique and unrivalled'.

Berio has tried to replace Alfano's coarseness with music that is questioning, uncertain, and up to a point he has succeeded. Instead of the brutal couple of bashing bars for the kiss we get a prolonged orchestral meditation, somewhat erotic but not intense; and in place of the crude brass blaring of the very end the orchestra lapses slowly into silence, preferable but it only evades the issue. Roger Parker said Berio's ending is `much more attuned to our sensibilities and what we need from an opera like Turandot', but maybe what Puccini had in mind wasn't particularly attuned to our sensibilities anyway, and I don't know that I need an opera like Turandot.

The performance at the Barbican -- which would have made a clearer impression if we had had the whole work - was very good, but would have been better had Leonard Slatkin given a more fervent account of the score. The opening of the act, oppressive and anxious, was too cool. Dennis O'Neill, presumably in the late afternoon of his career, gets ever stronger, and delivered a model Calaf, a very few pinched top notes apart. Amanda Roocroft was so good a Liu that even more than usual it was hard to feel anything other than boredom and revulsion at Turandot. Possibly it is the smallest and least sympathetic title-role in opera, and almost all the music for her in Act III is not by Puccini. Eva Urbanova made the best of an interesting but limited assignment. The Philharmonia Chorus was on stunning form, though they should have sounded more distant at the opening. If we're going to hear Turandot this is the preferred version; but I bet that won't lead it to be the standard one, such is the inertia of almost everyone connected with the performance of repertory operas.

Copyright Spectator Mar 22, 2003
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