Turandot and the Three Riddles

Maria Guleghina and Marcello Giordani in Turandot(Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)
Maria Guleghina and Marcello Giordani in Turandot(Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini‘s Turandot is presented live in HD from the Met on Saturday, November 7 at 1 PM.

Maria Guleghina and Marcello Giordani sing Turandot and Calaf, with Samuel Ramey and Maya Polopovskaya. The sets and costumes, among the most splendid (and gaudy) in the repertoire are by Franco Zeffirelli.

Puccini’s Final Opera

Giacomo Puccini worked on his final opera, Turandot over the last five years of his life.  The opera was left work incomplete when he died on November 29, 1924.

The composer suffered a fatal heart attack while being treated for throat cancer at a clinic in Brussels; he had never been told of the cancer diagnosis and though his condition was grave, it was expected he would live long enough to return to Viareggio to complete his Chinese fairy tale.

Alas! Sketches for the final scene were orchestrated and knitted together by composer Franco Alfano, a thankless task Alfano never lived down. Nevertheless Alfano’s industry enabled the opera to be premiered, at La Scala, Milan on April 25, 1926.

Turandot‘s 1926 Premier

No doubt there were people who were present at La Scala on that night until fairly recently. Maybe there are a few left today. Who knows? Rumor and melodrama surround that night.

Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) conducted, even then he was the fiery tiger of Italian opera, indeed of the Western World. At fifty-nine, Toscanini was in his second tenure as Artistic Director of La Scala, having held that post at the Metropolitan in New York from 1908 to 1915.

He would go on to greater fame in his later years as Chief Conductor of the NBC Symphony-leaving a huge recorded legacy than can enthrall and enrage today.

Polish soprano Rosa Raisa (1893-1963) sang Turandot. Two points of agreement on Raisa: She had a sensational dramatic soprano voice with a huge top, and her few recordings don’t begin to do her justice.

Thus is it hard to get a real “aural” picture of her today. But no less than the other Rosa-Ponselle always maintained that Raisa had a magnificent voice.

Legend has it that the entire performance of Turandot was recorded from the stage of La Scala on that starry evening, but that all the recording matrices were accidentally destroyed. Eighty-three years later, not a note has ever been found. That something might come up someday before we all quit this vale of tears is tantalizing.

Toscanini stopped the opening performance midway through Act II, following the death of the slave girl Liu. It was at this point that Puccini stopped work on the opera, to go off to Brussels for treatment. He never came home. Thus these pages were the composer’s last.

Toscanini turned to the audience and said, “Here the opera ends, because here Puccini died.” He had the curtains brought down on the no doubt stupefied artists (they got full fees anyway, one assumes) and had the theater cleared.

Quel melodramma! A fitting introduction to the last Italian language opera to enter the permanent repertoire. The line goes back to Monteverdi in 1607. But Puccni’s Principessa di gelo didn’t have an easy time.

The critics came back the next night when the entire opera was given-and were polite and respectful to Puccini in heaven.  But raves? No. Raisa and Toscanini were applauded to the walls, as the Spanish tenor Miguel Fleta, but not the opera.

Turandot Premiers at The Metropolitan Opera

The Metropolitan Opera first presented Turandot on November 16, 1926. Tullio Serafin conducted. Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, no slouch in the high-note department himself, sang Calaf, the Unknown Prince.

Turandot was the sensational bombshell Maria Jeritza, “shimmering in magnificence.” Not even she could make up for the music; Olin Downes wrote in the New York Times: “The music has certain interesting features, but they are not those that inhere in a score of significantly creative or emotional quality.”

Three generations of opera-goers have disagreed; Turandot routinely sells out the house. It’s true Puccini’s Chinese princess didn’t really take hold in New York until 1961, when Franco Corelli and Birgit Nilsson reintroduced Puccini’s last opera. It was worth the wait.

The Answers to the Riddles

And the riddles? Turandot the Chinese Princess will be the bride of any man of noble blood who can successfully answer three riddles (‘tre enigmi’) she will put to him. If he fails, he will sacrifice his ‘superba testa’ (proud head). The Palace walls are adorned with heads of the unlucky suitors, and as the opera begins Turandot continues to reign in icy isolation.

Here are the answers. For the questions, you’ll need to hear the opera itself. Enjoy!

  1. La speranza-hope
  2. Il sangue-blood
  3. Turandot!
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