Giacomo Puccini once described himself as ‘a mighty hunter of wild fowl, opera librettos, and attractive women.’ His seminary teacher claimed he only came to class ‘to wear out the seat of his pants.’ The last of a musical dynasty, he lacked Wagner’s power, Verdi’s depth, and Mozart’s everything, and showed little interest in the political or even the musical world around him. However, he composed three of history’s most popular operas, amassed a four million dollar fortune, and indulged in pastimes such as duck hunting, poker, motorcars, women and more women. His detractors are as fanatical as his admirers, but his style was his own, and it served him well.
Driven by narrative rather than musical ideas, in the theatre Puccini showed an uncharacteristic diligence. For Tosca
he learned the exact tone of Rome’s church bells, for Butterfly
he studied Japanese music, for La fancifulla del West
he examined popular American folk song, and for Turandot
he listened to a Chinese music box and researched folk music. Turandot
was Puccini’s last opera and indeed, the genre’s turning point; in his Lives of The Great Composers
, Harold Schoenberg calls it the ‘last opera to be a steady repertory piece, the last… that the public unreservedly loves.’
The question is why. The story lacks the solidity of Butterfly, Boheme or even the brilliant Gianni Schicchi. Furthermore, while the comparatively adventurous music features pentatonic patterns as well as xylophones, glockenspiels and gongs, let’s face it, we’re waiting for ‘Nessun Dorma’. This aria is an outstanding example of what Puccini did best: creating lush, soaring melodies that generate shivers, goosebumps and tears,but that have – it must be said – a certain sameness, especially when compared to Verdi. No matter. His fans revel in their raw, emotional intensity, while his detractors accuse him of commercial-at-Christmas sentimentality. For all its musical experimentation, watching Turandot often feels like sitting through Cats waiting for ‘Memory’.
However, ‘Nessun Dorma’ is worth the wait, and Turandot has its merits, not to mention spectacular staging. Based on a Persian tale set in Beijing, the icy Princess Turandot forces her suitors to answer three riddles and executes those who fail. But when the wandering Prince Calaf guesses all three correctly, the furious princess refuses her hand. Trying to win her over, Calaf bids her guess his name by sunrise: if she does, she keeps her virginity and he loses his head. She gives the order ‘nessun dorma’ (no one sleeps), and the race is on.
Interestingly, Turandot was once banned in China, given it’s less than sympathetic portrayal of the country, or at least its royalty. Later, China tried to own it, staging a massive and underwhelming production in the Bird’s Nest; there was even talk of a Turandot theme park and a Miss Turandot beauty contest, neither of which – fortunately – materialised. But the opera survives. And thrives.