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‘He closed his eyes forever with Liù’

How Puccini never finished his last opera

Eline Hadermann
Reading time
7 min.

Turandot is an opera with many endings. During the four years that Giacomo Puccini worked on it with his librettists, he just could not come up with a satisfactory finale. When he died in 1924, he left the work unfinished. What exactly prevented him from completing his last opera? What are the most common solutions to the missing finale? And how does the latest La Monnaie production get out of this dramaturgic impasse?

‘HOW ABOUT GOZZI?’

‘My life is torture’, Puccini wrote in November 1921. ‘I cannot see in this opera the beating heart and vigour that are necessary in a work for the theatre if it is to stand the test of time and endure.’ His words grew out of an excruciatingly slow and complicated writing process that from the start had been heavy going. After the European premiere of Il trittico in 1919, no new subject for an opera had come to him spontaneously. It is true that Puccini had set the bar very high: he wanted the new work to surpass all previous ones. For the libretto, he was counting on Giuseppe Adami, with whom he had already worked successfully on La rondine (1917) and Il tabarro (1918). Adami in turn involved Veronese playwright and journalist Renato Simoni. After an extensive correspondence about a possible adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, in which an impatient Puccini urged his librettists to ‘not let him down’ and to urgently write something ‘that will make the world weep’, the three men settled the subject at a hastily organized meeting in Milan. In the end, it was Simoni who, just hours before Puccini’s return trip to Torre del Lago, suggested Carlo Gozzi’s tragicomic fable Turandot.

Puccini and his librettists
Puccini and his librettists

As Puccini read an Italian translation of Friedrich Schiller’s adaptation on the train home, he was immediately sold. The experienced verismo composer, who for once was keen to let go of the drama of everyday life in his new opera, found the right dose of imagination in Gozzi’s play for him to break new ground and write ‘a Turandot’ from ‘a modern spirit’. He let Simoni know that he wanted to use the fairy tale as the material for the story, immediately adding that it seemed advisable to him to ‘reduce the number of acts, make it more workable and, above all, heighten Turandot’s love passion, which has been smouldering for so long under the ashes of her pride …’ (Letter from Puccini to Adami, 18 March 1920).

DRAMATURGIC STUMBLING BLOCK

For Puccini, the essence of the opera was therefore clear from the start: the cold-blooded Turandot, who has her suitors coolly beheaded if they fail to solve her three riddles, had to undergo a radical transformation. Something had to bring her submerged gentleness to the surface so that she could give in to an all-consuming passion for Prince Calaf. But that very point at once became Puccini’s biggest stumbling block. For how do you make Turandot’s growth from implacable imperial daughter to loving wife believable?

It is not that Puccini had no experience with the latter archetype. Mimi, Tosca, Cio-Cio-San: all women who – now resigned and meek, now fiery and intense – would give anything for love. In the chilly title character of Turandot, however, he could not find that vintage Puccini heroine for now – even though, from her opening aria ‘In questa reggia’, she is humanized, her brutal renunciation of love being given a psychological motif: revenge for her foremother, who was once kidnapped and murdered by an unknown prince. Puccini therefore asked his librettists early in the creation process to add a ‘piccola donna’ to the plot. The slave girl Liù – a warm girl who has loved Prince Calaf unconditionally ever since he once smiled at her – was called into being and given an important dramatic function. In November 1922, Puccini suggested that ‘Liù will have to be sacrificed to some grief or other’. With this approach, he was treading, in his own words, ‘on a sea of uncertainties’: ‘I don’t think this can be elaborated, unless she is made to die in the torture scene. And why not? Her death can have a powerful influence on the thawing of the princess’, he wrote to Adami.

‘It ain’t over till the soprano dies’

Women dying on the opera stage crowd not only Puccini’s operas. In Opera, or the Undoing of Women (1979), feminist literary critic Catherine Clément analysed how female characters in the opera canon (Liù, Tosca, but also Carmen and Lucia di Lammermoor) often suffer a similar fate: either they are driven to suicide by their love for a man, or they are murdered, or they face a life they did not choose for themselves. Again and again, they are the victims of an oppressive, patriarchal system, a fact that hardly seems to register with the audience, as it is carried away by the beautiful and moving music that makes up the soundtrack to these gruesome fates.

Paradoxically enough, it was on the character of Liù, and by extension on her sacrificial death, that Puccini spent the last of his creative forces. For Puccini, Turandot’s sudden surrender had to be crystallized in a great, all-changing duet with Calaf, in which these ‘superhuman characters’ must ‘descend to the level of real human beings by the way of love’ (September 1924). A difficult reversal in itself, and made all the more so as Puccini had pushed Turandot further into a corner by diametrically opposing her to the warm Liù. The sweet maid’s ultimate sacrifice may make the princess doubt her actions for the first time, but for the audience it is hard to forgive her for Liù’s suicide and to believe in a total reversal in character. And then there is the fact that Liù’s funeral scene is particularly impressive in musical terms. What finale could trump that?

What followed was a slow, laborious two-year creation process. Three acts were scaled back to two before becoming three again, and again and again Puccini battled with the same dramaturgical stumbling block: that one duet in which Calaf has to ‘kiss the ice princess to show how great his love is’ (November 1921). As he tinkered and tinkered with it, Puccini produced no fewer than five versions of the libretto in which, after that sudden kiss, Turandot surrenders to love and the people are reassured: the heir apparent has found her man. On 8 October 1924, Puccini let Adami know that he approved the lines for the fifth version of the duet, although he went on to suggest quite a few adjustments. Two days later, he pleaded:

‘Is it really true that I will no longer finish Turandot? We were so close to successfully completing the famous duet. Come, come, my dear Adami, do me a favour … and send me the lines I need … Don’t let me down!’

Puccini’s tone of despair had in part to do with the very sore throat he had been struggling with for some time. Ten days later came the worrying news that he was to travel to Brussels to undergo experimental radium therapy. His score at that point was fully orchestrated up to and including the procession in which Liù’s body is carried off. He took it with him to Brussels to finish it. But as Adami put it in their published correspondence, ‘Fate decreed that Giacomo Puccini should close his eyes forever at the same moment as his little Liù.’

A NEVER-ENDING STORY

Puccini’s son Tonio, his publisher Ricordi and conductor Arturo Toscanini were all keen to have Puccini’s last opera completed posthumously. Franco Alfano, a composer friend who had himself just created a deftly orchestrated opera with an exotic theme (La leggenda di Sakùntala, 1921), seemed the ideal candidate for a difficult task: to draw on the sketches left by Puccini and come up with a satisfying finale for an opera that just did not have an end.

And then … Tristan!

When he died, Puccini left thirty-six musical sketches: vocal lines with piano accompaniment, a number of ideas for orchestrations and some scribbled musical motifs. On one of these handwritten pieces, he wrote the enigmatic words, ‘Poi Tristano!’ – ‘And then … Tristan!’ A reference to Richard Wagner’s long love duet in Tristan und Isolde? To an eventual redemptive ‘love death’ of Turandot? Or a call to himself to compose the kind of ecstatic music that could explain the miracle of transformation all by itself?

After a first version was firmly rejected by Toscanini – too much Alfano, too little Puccini! – the composer produced a far shorter second ending, one that to this day is considered the standard version. And yet even this ending still raises eyebrows: while the first version offered no way out of the dramaturgical impasse, his second, abridged score gives Turandot no time at all to undergo a thorough character reversal.

After Alfano, other composers tried their hand at composing a new finale. In 2001, for instance, Luciano Berio based himself on Puccini’s sketches for a finale that does not end with a glorious, triumphant ‘Nessun dorma’ chorus, but one that rather bleeds out gently, something Berio believed more appropriate after Liù’s tragic death. Some years later, Chinese composer Hao Weiya also made an attempt. For the inauguration of the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, he added an aria for Turandot in the new finale, one which focuses more closely on her psychological development. And in 2024 the Washington National Opera continued on that momentum: in their latest production – with a new libretto – Turandot reveals that her cruel ritual not only avenges her foremother, but also her own trauma as a victim of rape. In this new scenario, she is the one who chooses to kiss Calaf and she ascends the throne as victor.

Four finales in a row: Franco Alfano's first, long version, followed by his second with the cuts suggested by Toscanini and the finales by Luciano Berio and Hao Wei Ya.

Puccini’s fear that his swan song would remain unfinished may have come true, but the opera did ‘endure’ and ‘stand the test of time’. The missing finale therefore presents opera houses today less with a problem than with a creative challenge that breathes new life into the work each time. The same holds for the new La Monnaie production. Turandot appears in it as the daughter of an opulent matriarch who, driven by the brutal logic of money, power and violence, rules over her empire in contemporary Hong Kong. Their problematic mother-daughter relationship has profoundly affected Turandot’s understanding of love and left her with deep childhood traumas. These become increasingly difficult for her to bear at the end and, as we enter her mental world to the tones of the second, shortened Alfano finale, the border between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly blurred …

Translation: Patrick Lennon