Composer Luciano Berio (1925-2003), largely famous for his electronic music and his wild, outré vocal works composed for his first wife, mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian, might seem to be the least likely suspect to complete Giacomo Puccini’s incomplete opera, Turandot. Yet it was Berio who was commissioned by Puccini’s publisher, Ricordi, to do so in 2001, and he responded with one of the finest, if not the finest, completions to a formerly unfinished opera ever penned.
But first, a bit of background. Puccini himself wrote the first 56 bars of music after the Timur-Calaf scene following the death of Liù, and a few brief sketches for the Turandot-Calaf duet based on the “Straniero, ascolta!” duet in Act 2, but not much more. He himself felt that he could not surpass the depth of feeling he achieved following the death of Liù, thus it was not until the last few weeks of his life that he pushed himself to write any more, spurred by his publisher Tito Ricordi. On his deathbed, Puccini said that he wanted two things: soprano Rosa Raisa to sing the role of Turandot in the premiere and, if a final scene was necessary, for composer Riccardo Zandonai, whose Francesca da Rimini and La Via Della Finestra he admired, to write it. His wish regarding Raisa was honored, but for whatever reason Ricordi detested Zandonai and instead commissioned Franco Alfano, a mediocre composer at best, to complete Puccini’s last opera.
Apparently, Alfano paid little attention to the rather modernistic, pentatonic writing and Orient-influenced orchestration of Turandot and instead wrote a real hack ending. True, he kept Puccini’s first 56 bars intact, but after that he went from bad to worse, ending with the chorus blatantly screaming different words to the melody of Calaf’s aria, “Nessun dorma.” Contrary to popular opinion, Alfano actually had this ending finished in time for the world premiere in 1926 but Arturo Toscanini, who Puccini requested conduct the premiere, took one look at it and declared it “rubbish.” Panicked, Ricordi begged the maestro to reconsider, but Toscanini would not. At the conclusion of the Timur-Calaf duet following the death of Liù, Toscanini stopped the performance, turned to the audience, and made his only public speech at a performance: “Here the master laid down his pen.” Needless to say, with a great deal of money invested in the project and the knowledge that no other opera company would produce an unfinished Puccini opera, the Alfano ending was incorporated into the published score and has been performed more or less ever since.
After performing it twice in 2001, Chailly conducted the Berio finale in his La Scala performances of May 2015 with Nina Stemme in the title role. The Italian newspaper Il Giornale called it “a calculated risk” since by and large, the Alfano version is still performed. To me that is the real calculated risk, since it so obviously degrades the work, but you know opera audiences. They are creatures of habit, even if it’s a bad habit like biting your nails or listening to a God-awful piece of music just because it’s “familiar.” British critic Andrew Clements, in The Guardian, said that Berio’s finale gave the opera “at last…the ending it deserves,” and it does. Indeed, Clements went further: “Alfano’s work, while long accepted as competent and uncontroversial, is essentially hack work, and fails to recognise the sheer variety of Puccini’s invention in his final years. Though rooted in the 19th-century Italian operatic tradition, Puccini incorporated elements from modernists such as Debussy and Stravinsky, whose progress he had monitored carefully since the 1900s. Both musically and in its subject matter Turandot is far removed the world of verismo in La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly, and the fundamental problem with Alfano’s ending is that it lacks the eclecticism of the preceding two and a half acts.”
Berio’s finale, which runs four minutes longer than Alfano’s, is actually briefer in terms of sung text. Berio omitted any written text for which Puccini left no music, particularly the final choral hymn which Alfano crudely set to “Nessun dorma.” Following the initial exchange between Calaf and Turandot, the “Principessa di morta!” scene, Berio spins a two-minute orchestral fantasia of remarkable invention. Yes, the music strays a bit—but only a bit—from the harmonic world of Puccini, incorporating some elements of Debussy and Stravinsky, but Puccini was very fond of both composers and followed their careers closely. (He was also highly impressed by Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire when he heard it in the early 1920s, and went up to the composer to discuss salient musical points with him.) One critic complained that Berio introduced a vibraphone, “an instrument that Puccini himself did not use,” but this writer is incorrect. It’s not a vibraphone, it’s a xylophone, and Puccini uses the xylophone throughout the work, including in the opening “Poplo di Pekino!” Yet it is the soft, quiet ending, with its suspended chords, that most convinces me that Berio did the right thing. Why on earth should an opera that essentially moves from slam-bang-crash moment to moment continue that way after the death of Liù and the reconciliation of Turandot and Calaf?
The new finale—starting with Liù’s final aria, “Tu che di gel sei cinta”—was recorded and issued on the CD Puccini Discoveries (Decca 475320) along with such oddities as the Inno di Roma, Salva Regina, a five-minute Requiem, Vexilla Regis, Motetto per San Paolino, a string quartet scherzo, an apparently new version of the Act 2 prelude to Manon Lescaut, the cantata “Cessato il suon dell’armi” and a few other very brief pieces for chorus or orchestra. Until such a time as it is included in a complete recording of the opera, I urge every opera lover to acquire this disc if only for the Berio finale. Aside from Maria Fontosh’s somewhat edgy-sounding aria, it is very well sung, particularly the Calaf of Dario Volonté. Eva Urbanová’s Turandot is theatrically believable but vocally closer to Inge Borkh and Eva Marton than the more powerful laser-beam voices of Eva Turner or Birgit Nilsson. (Personal note: I saw Nilsson onstage only once, as Turandot, in a production at the Newark Opera in 1975. Placido Domingo was the Calaf and Licia Albanese, believe it or not, was Liù. Aside from the almost comical effect of Albanese clinging to Domingo’s cape as Calaf dragged her up and down the stage in Act 1, what I recall most was Nilsson, particularly because my seat was in the very first row, on the right, immediately next to the tympani. Between Nilsson’s air-raid-siren voice belting out “In questa reggia” and the thunderous whacks of the tymp, I had a splitting headache by the end of Act 2.) Nevertheless, the recorded performance is quite excellent, so much so that you can gauge for yourself just how effective Berio’s ending is. It is phenomenal.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley
Listen to the Berio finale of Turandot here.
Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond