Puccini's "Turandot": The End of the Great Tradition

by William Ashbrook, Harold Powers

View All Available Formats & Editions

Unfinished at Puccini's death in 1924, Turandot was not only his most ambitious work, but it became the last Italian opera to enter the international repertory. In this colorful study two renowned music scholars demonstrate that this work, despite the modern climate in which it was written, was a fitting finale for the centuries-old Great Tradition of Italian opera

…  See more details below


Unfinished at Puccini's death in 1924, Turandot was not only his most ambitious work, but it became the last Italian opera to enter the international repertory. In this colorful study two renowned music scholars demonstrate that this work, despite the modern climate in which it was written, was a fitting finale for the centuries-old Great Tradition of Italian opera. Here they provide concrete instances of how a listener might encounter the dramatic and musical structures of Turandot in light of the Italian melodramma, and firmly establish Puccini's last work within the tradition of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi. In a summary of the sounds, sights, and symbolism of Turandot, the authors touch on earlier treatments of the subject, outline the conception, birth, and reception of the work, and analyze its coordinated dramatic and musical design. Showing how the evolution of the libretto documents Puccini's reversion to large musical forms typical of the Great Tradition in the late nineteenth century, they give particular attention to his use of contrasting Romantic, modernist, and two kinds of orientalist coloration in the general musical structure. They suggest that Puccini's inability to complete the opera resulted mainly from inadequate dramatic buildup for Turandot's last-minute change of heart combined with an overly successful treatment of the secondary character.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Puccini's final work, Turandot (1926), which was completed posthumously, is the last of the great Italian operas to enter the standard repertoire. Puccini had heard Stravinsky and Schoenberg by the 1920s, and he incorporated artistic trends of the day into his new opera. Ashbrook (humanities, Indiana State Univ.) and Powers (music, Princeton Univ.) examine the use of dissonance and exotic themes as well as Puccini's more melodic previous works in relation to the characters, with special emphasis on the two soprano-tenor duets. Turandot 's literary and musical roots, staging, and performance histories are investigated with convincing, richly detailed insights. Yet the many musical examples will be of little significance to readers not familiar with music scores and music theory. For collections supporting serious opera studies.-- James E. Ross, Seattle, Wash.

Product Details

Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Princeton Studies in Opera Series
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.59(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

Puccini's Turandot

The End of the Great Traditon

By William Ashbrook, Harold Powers


Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-09137-2



Turandot and the Great Tradition

Opera is a compound, not an amalgam. For convenience, elements in the compound may be thought of as mined separately from the Aristotelian quarries of action, character, social and physical mise-en-scène, language, and music. When they co-occur in the theater, however, the elements do not retain all their separate and original properties; they become a new substance altogether, with properties all its own. Subatomic features in the several elements are electrically bonded in the chemistry of the genre. If those generic elements are dissociated from the compound analytically, alone they may appear impoverished or distorted. Libretto language stripped of its music may seem fustian; theatrical music torn from its context may seem bombastic or formless; a lavish mise-en-scène visualized apart from the highly stylized action, words and music that go with it may seem pointlessly sybaritic.

This being so, the conventional approach that "tells the story" of an opera act by act, in continuous narrative prose, mentioning an aria incipit or returning motive here, a concerted piece or instrumental interlude there, is usually unsatisfactory. It is not simply that opera plots are unrealistic or confusing; taken by themselves they often are. It is rather that they ought not to be taken by themselves. Opera plots have no significance away from the musical and scenographic events whose particular effects they have inspired, away from the musical articulations whose verbal and visual correlates they have become through the kind of creative process traced in Chapter III.

To put it in terms of a particularly familiar kind of operatic compound: it is not really the case that a certain recurring figure, or harmony, or rhythm is a musical label for a character, or environment, or event in a drama. It starts that way, but in the compound as finally bonded it is the other way around: the character, or the environment, or the event has become a label for the musical phenomenon. What is said or seen is a representational embodiment of some melodic configuration, harmonic and/or timbral effect, rhythmic pattern, in short, of some music: music of a kind that would be able by itself to evoke a nonverbal and invisible generalized response—an affect—that is already predisposed by the musical-cultural background of an attuned spectator. The music needs actions, words, and mise-en-scène only to provide a concrete focus of attention, a specific who, where, and what. Indeed, the great convenience of theatrical music for the musical analyst is the fact that musical phenomena can so often have real names—"the Scarpia motive" or "the Tristan chord"—rather than having to be designated abstractly and forgettably, "the opening motive" or "the half-diminished seventh chord."

In the earlier phases of Italian Romantic melodramma, long-range musical recurrences were tied to events or persons previously seen, or to previously-heard sung words or stage instruments. They are often called "reminiscence themes": Rossini's Semiramide has a couple, for instance, and Verdi's Aida has several, to mention two of Turandot's predecessors also on exotic subjects. By Puccini's time the device of the "reminiscence theme" had been reinforced, even denatured, by quasi-Wagnerian and post-Wagnerian overuse of Leitmotive, but in Turandot recurring music is usually part of some larger musico-dramatic design, even where it functions as a "label" or as a "reminiscence theme" as well. Of the three themes with which the Princess Turandot herself has been associated, the only one used as an index to her person-the one we shall be calling "Mo-lihua"—is also the one most used in a purely formal way; of the other two, one is embodied in a particular event (impending or achieved), while the other (which returns only once) is associated with a particular line of text. And there is nothing like a "theme" for the slave-girl Liù (the seconda donna), or for the unknown Prince (the principal tenor) or his aged father (the principal bass): the music they embody is marked rather by its general character. For the Chinese slave-girl a quasi-"Chinese pentatonic" is used, as in her two arias "Signore, ascolta" (Act I) and "Tanto amore segreto" (Act III). The Prince embodies a normal Puccinian Romantic-diatonic style, as in the famous tenor romanza "Nessun dorma" in Act III, or as in his aria "Non piangere, Liù" in Act I. The music for the Prince's father, the deposed king Timur, is also of this character, as in his arietta "Perduta la battaglia" near the beginning of Act I.

For all its occasionally fluid structure and sometimes decadently up-to-date texture, moreover, Turandot is a "number" opera in the Great Tradition of Italian Romantic melodramma—or rather, during the course of its long genesis it gradually became one. In the fantastic play by Carlo Gozzi that was the source of the libretto, as outlined in Chapter II, the dramatic nucleus was already a set piece, a confrontation laid out as three formal sequences of challenge and response. In the opera this became a highly formalized "dialogue duet" between the cruel Princess and her suitor the unknown Prince—the Enigma scene, analyzed in Chapter V—a "ritual scene," to use Frits Noske's term. As shown in Chapter III, the Enigma scene originated as the climax of an originally very long Act I with two sets. At that early stage of its composition, however, the rest of the opera seems to have been headed toward the fluid musico-dramatic congeries of choruses and short genre pieces more characteristic of Madama Butterfly. Typical from the final form of the opera are the two tiny 2/4 ariette near the beginning of the present Act I in which the principal bass (Timur) and the seconder donna (Liù) introduce themselves; or the choral and ensemble episodes later in Act I during the confrontation of the three Ministers and the unknown Prince; or a passage near the end of the present Act II in which the ancient Emperor of China hopes the unknown Prince will become his son-in-law. But during the long course of the opera's genesis the original Act I was split in two, and three additional major set pieces found their way into what are now Acts I and II of the opera. First, the order of two arias before the change of set in the original Act I was reversed: what had been the first of the two, the Prince's aria "Non piangere, Liù," is now second, and it has become the lead-off solo for a grandiose concertato in the manner of the Act III Finale of Manon Lescaut or the Act I Finale of Tosca, a concertato added on to cap the now much shorter Act I. Second, a long scene for the three court Ministers alone, on an independent set, was introduced to open the new Act II—a scene that shows the traditional four-movement sequence of open-ended kinetic movements alternating with formally closed lyric movements typical of the Italian Romantic melo-dramma. Later on, just before the Enigma scene itself, an entrance aria for the Princess Turandot was interpolated, an impressive aria di sortita for the prima donna. The torture and death of Liù (the seconda donna) is another succession of four movements alternately open-ended and closed, conceived still later for the third act.

Thus Puccini's Turandot became a "number" opera, like Verdi's Aida or Rossini's Semiramide before it. On the one hand, there are extended passages that are relatively homogeneous: oriented tonally around one or two keys; consistent in pacing and rhythmic character; limited to a small number of ideas worked over at some length; or characterized by a particular instrumental color and texture. On the other hand, there are passages that carry us from one relatively stable musico-dramatic phase to the next, shifting keys, themes, or instruments as they go, acting as musical introductions, interludes, or transitions while they accompany changes of action or discourse. To be sure, as in Aida Act III, the formal seams are often stitched over, sometimes to the point of covering up an applause point for an important solo: the end of the Prince's romanza "Nessun dorma" in Act III is a particularly awkward one for a conductor, but Turandot's aria di sortita "In questa reggia" in Act II also merges directly into the music that follows. The beginnings of these two arias, however, as of other big set pieces in the opera, are carefully prepared, as such pieces always had been.

Turandot as a Number Opera

The overview of Turandot that follows below is set forth at three levels, differently marked in the headings. Each of the three acts is designated with an upper-case Roman numeral. Upper-case letters denote major mu-sico-dramatic "numbers" (I.B, D / II.A, C, D, E / III.A, C, D), as well as expositions (I.A, C / II.B / III.B) and conclusions (ILF / III.E). Shifts in mise-en-scène—either of set and lighting together (in Acts II and III) or of lighting alone (in Act I)—take place at this level.

Individual "movements" within the larger numbers, be they static solos and choruses or kinetic action movements, are marked with Arabic numerals. At this level are found the "arias," for instance Liù's "Signore, ascolta" (I.D.2), Turandot's "In questa reggia" (II.D.3), and the Prince's "Nessun dorma" (III.A.2); choruses like the sequence of Moonlight chorus, Children's chorus, and funeral cortège for the Prince of Persia (I.B.1–3); dialogues like the Recognition scene for the unknown Prince, Timur his father, and the faithful slave-girl Liù (I.A.2), not to mention the individual challenge-and-response cycles in the Enigma scene itself (II.E.1–3); individual movements in ensemble scenes, as in the separate scene for the three Ministers (II.A.1–4); climax ensembles like those that cap the Enigma scene (II.E.4) or the scene of the torture and suicide of Liù (III.C.4), not to mention the concertato that ends Act I (I.D.4); introductions and interludes; and so on.

Precise locations of musico-dramatic moments are identified with the help of the rehearsal numbers found in Ricordi's available published scores; the rehearsal numbers are the same in the piano-vocal and orchestral scores, and are separately enumerated for each act. Act number and rehearsal number are preceded by "rh" (for "rehearsal"); these are sometimes followed by a plus sign and another number, which indicates a location so many measures after the rehearsal number (with the measure at the rehearsal number counted as "1"); the whole is enclosed in parentheses. For instance: at the magnificent climax to the funeral cortège for the Prince of Persia, Turandot appears on the palace balcony high above the crowd accompanied by the fortissimo appearance in E[??] major of the theme we shall refer to as "Mo-li-hua"; this moment would be located with the rehearsal-number siglum (rh I.23 + 5). The equally magnificent climax to the after-math of the Enigma scene, the last exchange between Turandot and the unknown Prince in Act II, capped by "Mo-li-hua" now in C major, would be located with the rehearsal-number siglum (rh II.64 4 13).

An abbreviated outline of this overview is given as the Appendix, for cross-reference in connection with Chapters III, IV, and V.


A. Sunset: awaiting the execution

"The walls of the Imperial City enclose steps in a semi-circle. Stakes are affixed to the bastions and upon them are impaled the skulls of the beheaded suitors [of Turandot]. At the left and back three huge gates pierce the walls. It is the blood-red hour of sunset. The square is filled with a picturesque crowd of Chinese people."

1. Introduction (rh I.o). The "Execution" motive; the Mandarin's proclamation to the crowd: "Popolo di Pekino" (accompanied with "bi-centric" harmonies). Andante sostenuto, 2/2, f# minor.

2. Recognition (rh I.4). The unknown Prince, his father Timur, the slave-girl Liù: "Indietro, cani!" // "Il mio vecchio è caduto." Largo sostenuto, 3/4 (Ex. 2). Sequence from f# minor through g minor and a[??] minor, to arrive at a minor for the entrance of the Executioner's servants.

3. Interlude (rh 1.7). Ariette of Timur ("Perduta la battaglia") and Liù ("Nulla sono"). Andante, 2/4; G major and b\[??] minor.

4. Executioners' chorus (rh I.9): "Ungi, arrota" Allegro, 2/4; f# minor (Ex. 3), contrasting section in d minor over a low B[??] pedal.

B. Moonrise: funeral cortège of the Prince of Persia and the first appearance of the Princess Turandot.

"While the assistants depart to bring the Executioner his sharpened sword, the crowd watches the sky, which has gradually darkened."

1. The crowd awaits the moonrise (rh I.17): "Perchè tarda la luna?" Andante molto sostenuto, 4/4, D major. Sequence from D major through E[??] major and E major to F major, to climax back in E[??] major for the entrance of the Executioner: "Pu-Tin-Pao!"

2. Children's chorus (rh I.19): "La sui monti dell'est." Andantino, 2/4, E[??] major; "Mo-li-hua" harmonized (as usual) with lowered leading tone (Ex. 4).

"The gold in the background has changed to silver. The cortège leading the young Prince of Persia to the block appears."

3. The funeral cortège for the Prince of Persia (rh I.21). Cortège ("O giovinetto!") (Exs. 5, 6); appearance of Turandot, and the unknown Prince is smitten ("O divina bellezza!"). Andante triste, 4/4; e[??] minor (with augmented seconds) and E[??] major ("Mo-li-hua").

4. Interlude (rh 1.25): Liù and Timur beg the Prince to leave with them ("Figlio, che fair?"); the Prince of Persia is beheaded offstage: ("Turandot!")—see Example 32 in Chapter V. Andante; 2/4, 4/4, 3/4; modulation and sequence, to "Mo-li-Hua" and "Execution" motives, then ostinato leading to

C. The three Ministers and the unknown Prince

1. The Ministers try to dissuade the Prince from striking the fatal gong (rh I.28): "Fermo! che fai?" Allegro giusto, 2/4 4 3/4, A[??] major.

2. Interludes (rh I.35)

a) Chorus of Turandot's handmaidens: "Silenzio, olà!" Andante lento, 3/4; C# minor > f# minor.

b) Ministerial warnings: "Guardalo, Pong." Allegretto; 2/4, 3/4, 5/8, 4/4; f# minor > b minor.

3. The ghosts of Turandot's former suitors (rh I.38): "Non indugiare!" Lento, 3/4; a minor, atonally harmonized (Ex. 8).

4. Conclusion (rh I.39)

a) The Ministers try again: "L'ami? Che cosa? Chi?" Allegro; 2/4, 3/4 (Ex. 9); sequential modulation on the "Execution" motive. "Turandot! con tutti quei citrulli," E[??] major > B[??] major.

b) The Chief Executioner shows the severed head of the Prince of Persia: "Stolto! Ecco Pamore"; d minor, "Execution" motive.

D. Finale

1. Transition (rh I.41 + 3): "O figlio, vuoi dunque ch'io solo." Pesante e sostenuto, (3/4), modulation (but see Chapter IV, Example 35 and pp. 103-4).

2. Aria of Liù (rh I.42): "Signore, ascolta." Adagio 4/4, G[??] major (Ex. 10).

3. Aria of the unknown Prince (rh I.43): "Non piangere, Liù." Andante lento sostenuto; 2/2,3/2; e[??] minor. Lead-off solo (Ex.II) for the

4. Concluding concertato (rh I.46): "Ah! per l'ultima volta." (Andante lento sostenuto); 9/4 + 6/4 + 9/4; e[??] minor (ostinato); The Prince strikes the gong: "Turandot!" > D major ("Mo-li-hua") > e[??] minor (final orchestral ostinato and fivefold cadence).

A. Trio of the three Ministers

"a vast tent decorated with fantastic Chinese symbols. The tent has three openings, one in the center and one on either side. Ping peeps through the central aperture [and] calls his companions from right and left."

0. Scena (rh II.o): "Olà, Pang! Olà, Pong!" Allegro moderato, 3/4; "bicentric" harmonies leading to the

1. Tempo d'attacco (rh II.i). The Ministers regret the past and lament the present: "Io preparo le nozze," "Ed io Pesequie." Allegretto; 2/4, 3/4, 2/4; d minor.

2. Andantino (rh II.9). The Ministers nostalgically recollect their country retreats: "Ho una casa nell'Honan." Andantino mosso; 2/4, 3/4; D major.

3. Tempo di mezzo (rh II.13)

a) The Ministers recall recent executions: "O mondo pieno di pazzi innamorati," Andante mosso, 3/4, B[??] major; "Vi ricordate il principe regal di Samarcanda," Allegretto (Executioners5 chorus) 3/8, 2/8, e[??] minor. They bid farewell to ancient China: "Addio ... stirpe divina," Molto moderato, 4/4, E[??] major.

b) They hope this time to prepare a bridal chamber instead: "Il talamo le voglio preparare," Toco più mosso, 2/4; the "Guiding March" (see Chapter IV, Example 33 and p. 96) as dominant preparation for the

4. Stretta (rh II.21): "Non v'è in China." Allegretto moderato, 2/4, G major.

B. Change of set: the Court assembles

1. Transition. The stretta is interrupted by an offstage march (rh II.25 + 2), heard first at a distance with stage instruments and later in full from the orchestra pit.

"A vast piazza within the palace appears. An enormous marble staircase almost in the center is lost in the heights ... There are three huge landings on the staircase."

The march leads uninterruptedly through the change of set, functioning as a dominant harmonic preparation for the opening tonality (G[??] major) of the

2. Processional (rh II.26). March tunes and entrance of the Court: Moderatamente; 2/4, 3/4; various tonalities in sequence, leading to the Imperial hymn (E[??] major) and choral Acclamation of the Emperor (A[??] major) (Exs. 15,16).

C. The first confrontation

1. The Emperor and the unknown Prince (rh II. 34): ccUn giuramento atroce mi costringe" / "Figlio del cielo, io chiedo d'affrontar la prova." Andante energico esolenne; 2/4,3/4; C major (Exs. 17,18).

2. Brief ceremonial conclusion (rh II.39): "Diecimila anni"; Largo; 4/4, 5/4; F major > B[??] major.


Excerpted from Puccini's Turandot by William Ashbrook, Harold Powers. Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >