The last opera composed by Giacomo Puccini is gigantic, grand, with all the elements of high opera. And it has the number one hit song of all! The theme is victory over that which stands in the way of love. I think this opera is so important that Ive formed a concept around it -- the Turandot Transfiguration.
Turandot is the high priestess of China. She is considered the embodiment of a Ten Thousand-Year culture. All of China goes as she goes and hence the problem: Turandot is holding a grudge. Thousands of years ago her ancestor, the Princess at the time, was raped, tortured and then placed in captivity by a brutish man who denied her the throne. Turandot has inherited all of the pain of this woman and revivifies it daily. She has worked it up into a monumental hatred, amplified and made cruelly perilous by the power she wields.
She will have no suitor willingly. This has upset her father the emperor who is taking heat for not maintaining the dynasty. He keeps importing candidates, but Turandot, knowing she has the upper hand, is playing hardball. Each Romeo is put to the test: answer three riddles spoken to him by the lady and he gets to marry Turandot and become emperor in his time. Fail, and its off with his head. [Pucinni always has a blood element in every opera, knowing the sensation its spilling causes in the opera lovers melodramatic soul]. The executioner makes a dramatic entrance in the first act, complete with huge double-sided axe, stained red from the latest debacle, while the crowd [chorus] thrills to the spectacle.
Meanwhile, three characters have watched this play out. An old man, his daughter Liu acting as servant and a handsome and virile character who will come to be called the Unknown Prince but whose real name is Caliph. It becomes evident that Liu is in love with the Caliph, but it is not reciprocated. She sings a tender aria to this fact. She is also utterly devoted to her father, who loves China and simply wants the problem solved. The two of them are horrified by the grizzly ritual, the frenetic and completely fear-driven masses and the implacable hatred in the heart of Turandot. [Turandot does not appear in the first act, but her position and actions dominate it.]
Caliph, however, is not disturbed. In fact, his confidence is seen to soar as the head rolls (offstage). The old man and Liu beg him to moderate his mood, but he cannot be dissuaded. As the act ends Caliph grabs a huge hammer and strikes three times the great gong, which is the official manner of announcing a new challenge to the deadliest game on earth.
The second act begins with a (much discussed by opera fans) interlude wherein three bourgeois citizens, Ping, Pang and Pong postulate about the situation, life in general, what they would do if the problem were solved. They gossip, also. Honestly I feel PPandP are filling time, but they do also represent a juxtaposition of the (relative) mundane against the excruciatingly high tone of the central drama, the protagonists of which are drawn almost as prototypes -- the opposite of verismo you might say.
When things get going again, we have the appearance of Turandot. She argues with her father. She gloats about the newly headless suitor. She restates her case against the males in the past history of the dynasty. [Puccini places the tessitura of Turandot high in the soprano register. It is considered a nearly impossible singing role. Only specialists attempt it. One can barely stand the strain of this line, but it effectively conveys the agony of chronic resentment and agitation.] The Riddle Scene follows this, where in a very taut way Turandot puts the three riddles to Caliph. Naturally, he is successful. The masses instantly break out into a fabulous chorus of triumph and relief over the liberation of 10000 Years.
But not so fast. Turandot balks. She will not have it. Dad rages. In a masterful stroke of male finesse, Caliph steps in to offer her a way out -- a riddle! If she can discover the Unknown Princes true name by dawn, Caliph will submit his neck to the accustomed treatment. If she cant, she must not just agree to marriage, she must melt her heart. Wow.
Stunned, Turandot retreats to her palace. She orders everyone in the land to stay awake all night. All her power gets mobilized to find out the name. Caliph is the epitome of equanimity.
The beginning of the third act is one of the greatest moments in opera. It is just before dawn. We see the occasional citizen walking in the background and hear the chant to the effect that no one is to sleep. Caliph comes across a bridge and stops to listen (in older times the tenor would approach the footlights) It is clear that the crowd is pessimistic, you can hear their depressing drone lightly in the background. Caliph muses, twice.... "no one shall sleep... no one shall sleep.." which of course, in Italian is "...nessun dorma.... nessun dorma..." Then the actual melody comes forth and the total confidence, clarity and life-giving affirmation within this man begins to uplift the mood. There is a pause in the singers part and we hear the crowd in the background now pick up the melody, but their words are still pessimistic. This is rejected mid phrase as the tenor repudiates any doubt. The great melody line rises to a powerful height. The final two phrases..."vincero, vincero" (victory, victory) including the fabulous high B-Natural always brings down the house. [I have heard that in Italy even a middling tenor cannot escape without at least two or three repeats of the aria, demanded by the delirious audience.]
The principles all come back on stage. There is one more act of desperation and doom. Turandot catches a rumor that Liu knows the true name of the Unknown Prince and instantly orders her tortured. But before that can happen, Liu grabs a knife and takes her own life to protect that of her lover. Somehow, this is the last straw. Turandot yields.
At this point, Puccini died. Thats right -- he never finished the opera. He had gotten to the death of Liu by 1922 and labored and fussed about the end of the opera for a LONG time. You can see the problem: The fanaticism of Turandot, the typical Puccini device of the violent death for love.... how could it be realistic for the opera to NOT end in full tragedy, as any other Puccini opera worth its salt would have had the courtesy to do quite easily. But Puccini had made the promise to himself that this was to be different. This was to be the wholesome triumph of love. Well, he got one of the characters right: Caliph is the ideal hero, never wavering, never stupid, never failing because of a fault, true and real. But he just did not know how to get his female character to act right. I think he simply could not summon up a valid visualization of what Turandot would be like turned around 180 degrees.
It is said that he had written the final love duet several times and tore it up. Snippets of it were found after the composers death, but not enough to get it down. Just think.. that duet would have to SURPASS Nessun Dorma! Its fascinating to speculate on the relationship between this situation and the actual death of Puccini in 1924, but there it is.
The opera was finished by a friend of Puccini and has a passionate exchange (recitative only) between the two lovers as Turandots heart warms up. In the clinching line, Turandot says "now I know the answer to the riddle, thy name is Love." The opera ends by employing the nessun dorma theme taken up by the chorus and the lovers and is effective, but not really satisfying, in my opinion.
Its a big problem in narrative art anyway, isnt it? What does a heroic happy ending look like? We are so used to high love ending in tragedy that it makes one wonder if it might simply be that artists have not yet solved this puzzle. Yup, small art (movie romantic comedy, operetta, books by Danielle Steel) can do it, but try to name one really high art narrative that pulls off the straight happy ending! Only Rand has had the balls to try it.
Turandot , for me, is like standing on a ledge overlooking the ocean. One has just journeyed miles and miles to find that continuing is not so easy. Some say that Turandot is the last opera. After it grand opera has never been achieved, one could make the case. In the 20th Century if we were not trashing values and destroying "the good" outright, we were at least not able to digest the lofty gesture and the noble achievement in new works. It was all right to mount such opera from the past, knowing it to be "safely" non-contextual, but anyone with the effrontery to ask to be taken seriously and straight in the debut of such a work has been stamped down (or given directions to Broadway.)
So, what is the Turandot Transfiguration? It is the healing of female anger when a true man stands true. He does not fix her. He does not suffer her attack. He does not manipulate. He only lives as a warrior who believes in a warm, steady happiness and the joy that comes from being alive and fully free. She tests, and finds no damage. She tests as much as required. And then she joins him, healed.
I do not say this is the best way, or the only way. It is one very beautiful way. If you wonder if Turandot was secretly hoping someone would turn the trick, listen to the third riddle. The only man who could answer it would be he who could name her deepest secret.