Puccini and Turandot

The Beginning

In 1920 Puccini was searching for a new topic for an opera. He had seen Oliver Twist in London and was considering both it and a story involving one of the characters in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Adami and Simoni started a libretto for the Dickens piece to be called Fanny. (Dickens’s Nancy would not sound right in Italian). However, Puccini was not pleased with what they produced; he wanted something new, perhaps based on a fairy tale. As Adami tells it, one day, at a lunch with Puccini, Simoni and himself, Gozzi’s plays were mentioned and Puccini suggested Turandot which he had either seen or been told of in Germany in a translation by Karl Vollmoeller with incidental music by Busoni (Busoni’s complete opera was later.) Puccini would also have known Bazzini’s Turanda, and he had a copy of Andrea Maffei’s Italian translation of Schiller’s German version of Gozzi’s play. He gave it to Puccini to read on a train ride to Rome, and it was not until some time later that Gozzi’s original was consulted.. This story is apocryphal. In fact, Simoni had already adapted Gozzi’s play for the stage, and Puccini and Simoni had discussed the idea a year earlier, including the changes they would make when adapting the play as an opera.

Puccini said: “To exalt the passion of Turandot, who for so long has suffered in the sashes of her great pride...when all is said, I cling to the feeling that Turandot is the least bizarre and most human of Gozzi’s theatre pieces”. He also told Simoni it would be: “a Turandot through the modern mind, yours, Adami’s, and mine”.


Puccini spent the last four years of his life on the composition of Turandot, years of delays and frustrations. His reaction to an early version of the first act libretto was not good. There were too many details of Chinese life; it was more like a scholarly lecture on China. Eventually the first act took shape but there many delays after that. Should there be two or three acts? Should Liù die and, if so, how? How could all of Gozzi’s complications be adapted for the shorter operatic version? Many letters were exchanged discussing these questions and because of long delays in finishing the libretto. Adami and Simoni had separate careers and other responsibilities, and because of his health, Puccini found it more and more difficult to work. At times he despaired and considered giving up the project altogether.

Nevertheless, he showed his usual thoroughness in researching the background, especially the Chinese music and instruments. He visited the villa of Baron Fassini-Camossi in Bagni di Lucca where he heard authentic Chinese instruments and got detailed descriptions so they could be duplicated as props. The orchestra is the largest Puccini ever used and Toscanini was a frequent consultant on the orchestration. At a meeting of the two near the end, Toscanini was very disturbed by Puccini’s appearance.

The Ending

The final duet had been a problem from the beginning. What should it be like after the death of Liù? Puccini wrote that “[it should be] the key — but it should have something about it of the grand, the bold, the unexpected, and not leave things where they began”. It had to represent the triumph of love over everything. “These two beings, who stand...outside the world, are transformed into humans through love, and this love must take possession of everybody on the stage in an orchestral peroration”. He also directed that Calàf should kiss Turandot “with a passion which would melt her”.

Although it is frequently stated that the end of the opera was unfinished at Puccini’s death, he had finished detailed sketches. The text of the love duet was done with some notes on the music and with six pages of vocal score. Only the orchestration was unfinished when he left for Brussels. He took the score with him but had a premonition and said, “My opera will be given incomplete, and then someone will come on the stage and say to the public: ’At this point, the composer died!&lrquo;.

Toscanini was given the responsibility for overseeing the finishing of the work. He wanted the composer Zandonai to finish the orchestration but Puccini’s son insisted on someone less famous. The task went to Franco Alfano. He had Puccini’s sketches and vocal score to work from but was not able to see Puccini’s orchestration for the rest of the opera. He spent six months on the task only to have his work severely criticized by Toscanini. A bitter Alfano said he might as well resign as director of the Turin conservatory and take composition lessons from Toscanini, but he shaved his original 377 measures down to 268. (After the initial production he cut an additional 100 measures.)


Turandot finally opened on April 25, 1926, seventeen months after the composer’s death. Rehearsals had been stormy and the singers were all different from those Puccini had wanted. Giovacchino Forzano, who stage the première was the Franco Zeffirelli of his time, used to directing operatic and cinematic extravaganzas. The detailed production book still exists so we know many details about it.

Mussolini was invited by La Scala to attend the première, and he accepted on the condition that the Fascist hymn Giovinezza be played at the beginning. Toscanini was a staunch anti-Fascist and gave La Scala an ultimatum. He would quit if the hymn was played! It was not played, and Il Duce did not attend! Music overcame politics! One of the papers told its readers the dictator did not attend because he did not want to distract attention from the music of Puccini!

After the death of Liù and the exit of her cortège, Toscanini laid down his baton saying, “Qui finische l’opera, perchè a questo punto il Maestro è morto.” (The opera ends here because at this point the Maestro died). That night the opera did end there, the orchestra and singers having been warned beforehand. Puccini’s prophecy was fulfilled. On subsequent nights Alfano’s ending was given, as it had been during the dress rehearsal. After the initial run, Toscanini never conducted Turandot again. Critics reacted positively but they were confused because they had not heard the ending and thought it was a tragedy.

Later Productions

The Rome première occurred four days later, and the first performance outside of Italy was in Buenos Aires on June 25, 1926. Turandot reached Germany in September, Austria in October and the Metropolitan Opera in November where the reception was cool. It was not given there again until 1950. In 1982 two scenes and a finale by Alfano were discovered in the publisher’s archives. Although it had been published in a vocal score and it was sometimes used in early recordings, the original was not again played in its entirety until 1982. When staged by the New York City Opera in 1983 and later by other companies, it was well received.

In recent years there have been many elaborate productions including the 1998 one at the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Recently a new ending was created by Luciano Berio. He was the founder of the Juilliard Ensemble, had studied at the Milan Conservatory, and wrote many vocal works including operas, the first of which was named “Opera”. Puccini’s estate has sanctioned this ending. It is 307 bars long, and Turandot’s transformation is more gradual and therefore more believable. It ends softly rather than triumphantly, because Berio felt the latter betrays death of Liù. This ending was tried in concert in the Canary Islands and in performances by Los Angeles Opera, the Salzburg Festival, and in Amsterdam. Berio died on May 27, 2003.

Turandot has been called , “the end of the Great Tradition” of Italian opera, that is of nineteenth century Italian opera. It is a “number opera” with big arias and ensembles, more fabulous than verismo and typical of the “grand opera” genre. Yet Puccini was correct when he said it would be a, “Turandot through the modern mind”. While the subject was from a fable, Puccini did give it many realistic touches. In many ways, it truly is a twentieth century opera.