JThere isn’t anything new to describe Puccini’s last opera “Turrandot”. Most operaphiles know that he did not complete the opera. At the premier in 1926 Arturo Toscanini put down his baton near the end of the score saying this is where the master finished his work.
Several years later a Puccini scholar undertook completing the opera based on Puccini’s sketches which is the version we hear today. It is one of the grandest of the grand operas requiring powerful voices as well as very elaborate sets and costumes. The production as been seen in San Diego five times and will have a new production for the season.
The opera is based on a Chinese fairy-tale play written by Carlo Gozzi, a Venetian playwright of the 18th century, and later adapted for the stage by German poet Schiller. As was his custom, Puccini created a memorable title role (remember Manon Lescaut, Madama Butterfly, Tosca) as the protagonist that you love to hate, quite different from his other sympathetic heroines. “Turandot” also demands a dramatic soprano voice of heroic size with a stage presence to match.
The first act sets the story in motion before the vocal fireworks begin. A mysterious named Calàf appears to witness the execution of the latest victim and for some unknown reason is smitten by the ice-princess only briefly viewed on a balcony to witness the killing. Despite pleadings from the young man’s father and his slave girl who worships the prince, Calàf steps up to the giant gong to announce his challenge.
The next scene features three Mandarin officials who are in charge of executions, or the wedding ceremony should a suitor answer the riddles. Here is where the fairy-tale author Gozzi adapted a popular drama technique of his time called “commedia dell’arte” by using mask characters for a lighter comic relief to the intense drama.
Puccini focused on these masks in the roles of Ping, Pang and Pong to incorporate an Italianate touch to the fussy Chinese mannerisms. He also borrowed a friend’s music box that played Chinese folk songs to adapt as themes for his opera score.
The big scene is in the imperial palace where Turandot challenges the prince with her cryptic riddles. To her shock and dismay, the Calàf answers them correctly and claims his prize. When the haughty Turandot begs release, her suitor offers to forfeit if she can identify him before dawn.
Enter the blind father of Calàf and his slave girl Liù to soften the grisly drama with some melodic touches. Liù’s two brief arias are the show stoppers usually cast for a lyric soprano of bel canto vocal quality. The vindictive princess suspects that Liù can identify her mystery suitor and orders her torture. Rather than betray her master, she grabs a dagger from a soldier and stabs herself while pleading with Turandot to discover
The SDO production stars Lise Lindstrom in the title role which was her 2009 Met Opera debut as Turandot. An interviewer in “Opera News” quipped that she was the first ice princess she had seen who actually melted as her passion grew.
Performances at the Civic Theater 7;00 p.m.Saturday, Febuary 24, Tuesday February 27; Friday 7;00 p.m. p.m. and 2;00 p.m.Sunday March 4. For ticket information, call (619) 533 7000 or visit www.sdopera.com
Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University.