Monday, 25 April 2016


“Qui finisce l'opera, perché a questo punto il maestro è morto."

("Here the opera ends, for it is at this point the maestro died.")


-Arturo Toscanini, 25th of April, 1926, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Exactly 90 years ago today at the La Scala Theater in Milan, Italy, world renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini mournfully and abruptly lowered his baton mid-stroke at the 1926 premiere of Italian composer Giacomo Puccini’s tragic[1] opera Turandot, turned to face the audience, and informed the well manicured patrons that here the opera – and in effect the evening itself – would conclude, for it was here that the "maestro” Puccini “laid down his pen.”

The entire attending audience, of course, knew whereof Toscanini spoke. The fans and patrons of Puccini knew of the close relationship between conductor and composer, and knew of the beloved musicians death only less than two years prior in November of 1924 of a massive heart attack – a complication of the radiation therapy the composer had undergone to treat his throat cancer.

Instead of a jeering mob or full-blown riot at having been shafted for the full priced fare for less than a full performance, the mournful conductor – and indeed the spirit of Puccini himself - was met first with a very emotional silence – perhaps in reflection of their beloved departed musician, or perhaps in a bewildered showing of sympathy for the friend left behind now towering over the crowd from his exalted place at the podium. The emotionally wracked conductor was then met with a showering of encouragemental praise: shouts of “Viva Puccini!” (“long live Puccini!”) echoed though the theater amongst the vibrating current of thunderous applause.

Giacomo Puccini
Puccini’s three-act opera, set in distant Peking, China, had been all but composed save for a final duet in the third act, in which Princess Turandot, the seductive vigilante responsible for massacring any and all potential suitors to her heart relents to a rather macabre wedding pact and the marriage of a princely victor named “Love."

Throughout the opera's first and second acts, the audience is introduced to the vengeful princess, who we soon learn believes herself to be possessed of a murdered ancestress, Lo-u-Ling, who ruled as Princess until being sexually violated and made slain by a “foreign prince.” Seeking to avenge her relative’s violent end, the Princess Turandot declares an oath upon potential suitors – all of them foreign princes - seeking her hand in marriage: either answer correctly from three riddles presented by the Princess, or lose your head. As the opera progresses, we learn that up until the present moment, no prince had ever escaped the chopping block. Unbeknownst to Turandot, a young prince (Calaf) espies the princesses’ great beauty from his place in the crowd, all of whom had gathered to witness the execution of the Prince of Persia, Turandot’s latest victim. Instead of feeling a sense of vitriol at the cruel nature of the Princess, who shuns even the protestations of her father (who wants nothing to do with the oath or the executions), Prince Calaf falls hopelessly in love with the royal femme fatale.

After several failed attempts at dissuading the courtly advances of the Prince - not only by the Emperor’s ministers, but also by Timur, a dispossessed and deposed former King (who just so happens to be the estranged father of the prince) and his slave, a young lady by the name of Liu (both of whom also happen to be present in the crowd to witness the execution), Calaf rushes by those warning him of a certain death, picks up a hammer, and bangs the royal gong three times – signaling to the Princess that he was ready, willing and able to take on Turandot’s three-riddle challenge in a most confident attempt to make her an honest woman.

The prince is met with three puzzling “enigmas:”

  • What is born each night, only to perish in the day?

    To which the Prince correctly answers “it is Hope!”

  • What flickers like a flame - yet is not a flame?
To which the Prince correctly answers “it is Blood!”

And finally,
  • What is like ice, yet casts off fire?
Which, to the astonishment of the Princess and the crowd, who had assembled to witness fresh blood, the Prince answers correctly with the name of his innamorata:


Horrified, the Princess begs her father to null and void her very own pact without avail. In the crowd, the slave-girl Liu bursts into hysterics, for, after professing her love for the prince in a failed attempt to foil his plans to take on the challenge begin with, the broken hearted servant must reconcile the fact that the object of her affection would be fixed permanently outside of her grasp - one way or the other.

Moved by the fear instilled in Turandot, and spurned on by a sense of confidence, Calaf offers the princess an out – having kept his identity a secret as he sought exile due to his father’s throne being usurped, the Prince issues a challenge of his own: guess my name before dawn, and I will die. The princess reluctantly agrees, certain her efforts to uncover her mysterious Romeo’s identity will prove fruitful. All of the commotion becomes too much for the mournful Liu, who grabs a dagger from the waist of a guard and stabs herself to death before he prince and princess – but not before informing Turandot that she will soon “learn of love.” Believing Liu had sacrificed herself so that Turandot could “find love” in the prince, Calaf turns to the Princess, and, after having admonished her for her cruelty, engages her in a passionate kiss.

It is here that the composer Puccini “set down his pen” – that is, he expired: dying before completing the orchestrations for the finale in the third act. This is also where Toscanini laid down his baton and where the occupants of La Scala exited the theater 90 years ago today.

Composer Franco Alfano
Puccini was well aware that he would pass before completing the orchestrations for the remainder of the third act. A plan was devised to have fellow composer Franco Alfano complete the work by drawing on the many sketches Puccini had left behind.

In Alfano’s version, Calaf, after having kissed Turandot and confessed his identity to the Princess, awaits his fate. Suddenly finding herself overcome with emotion and humbled by the prince’s fateful admission, Turandot confesses her affection for the prince before her father, and informs him that she has indeed “learned of love,” informing the emperor she had discovered the identity of the evasive prince: “his name is Love.” This scene alone creates for Puccini’s Turandot an entirely different genre: an otherwise morbid opera with a happy ending.

Perhaps Puccini had an instinctive foresight into the most impacting, emotionally charged ending for Turandot – for where both pen and baton stop, the tragedy of Liu, the rage of the princess, and the uncertainty of the prince culminate to create for the viewer a feeling of unfinished business and of loss – a mournful ending to echo the tragic finale of a master composer.

Listen below to "Tu che di gel sei cinta" (“You! Who are enclosed in ice”), the slave-girl Piu’s final aria sung to the princess Turandot, in which the brokenhearted servant and object of the princes unrequited love informs the Princess she will soon “learn of Love” as she offers to Turandot the “sacrifice” of her affections by committing suicide. It would be after this shocking scene that the maestro Puccini “laid down his pen” and died, and here that Toscanini lowered his baton. Sung by Greek-American soprano Maria Callas:

[1] Puccini’s unfinished version. The completed version of Turandot, by composer Franco Alfano in 1926 presents to the audience an opera with a happy ending.

Did you know?

Turandot’s most famous aria, the tenor show-off piece “Nessun Dorma!” from the operas third act (scene I) has become somewhat of a standalone piece in the West and has quite recently seen a resurgence of popularity thanks to present-day vocal contests, such as Fremantle Media's popular series “Britain's / America's Got Talent.”

While many a classical layman felt themselves moved to tears by the beautifully melodic piece, the aria’s foreboding and rather macabre subject matter would continue to be ignored by the contestants introducing the lugubrious show-off piece to the audience and judges, many of whom were hearing Nessun Dorma! for the first time.

The backstory of this most popular piece depicts a pensive Prince Calaf, who, while hopeful of a successful outcome come dawn, remains highly aware of his own mortality as he repeats the murderous Princesses' demand “No one sleeps!” – not until the Princess and her goons torture the Prince’s aging father and his slave into revealing the identity of Calaf, which would secure for Turandot his head on the chopping block. Failing to uncover the mystery of the Prince's given name will result in the slaughter of those in the Princesses' inner circle and indeed, the entire city of Peking, whose inhabitants - forced to spend the night awake as sleuths in the service of the Princess - face the prospect of paying for their incompetence with their lives in what could only be described as a potential bloodbath of epic proportions.

The prince belts out this highly emotive tune as all of the citizens of Peking band together to uncover Calaf’s secret identity to ensure for him a speedy execution (as per his pact with the Princess).

Listen below to “Nessun Dorma!’ (No One Sleeps!”) from Act III, Scene I of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, as sung by tenor Plácido Domingo:


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