Exotic Settings and a Blockbuster Aria, in Puccini's 'Turandot'

woo-1627-turandot-storyRemember Helen of Troy?  The beautiful princess with the "face that launched a thousand ships?"  Well, in Giacomo Puccini's opera Turandot, the title character is another legendary beauty -- you might call her "the princess whose face took a thousand heads."

Turandot is based on an ancient, Persian legend, which Puccini sets in China.  It tells of a princess so desirable that men come by the hundreds, traveling from kingdoms all over the world, simply for the privilege of asking for her hand.  

It's a dangerous quest. To even get a chance to "pop the question," a man first has to answer three, vexing riddles -- with his life on the line in the process. Anyone who fails the test winds up as part of a grisly display: a forest of heads on stakes, placed at the gates of Turandot's realm, as a warning to all the suitors still hoping for their turn.

The opera tells us about a mysterious prince who does solve the riddles -- terrifying Turandot in the process.  He is then magnanimous enough to present the newly vulnerable princess with a riddle of his own, and a chance to get off the hook.  Along the way, Puccini gives the clever prince a musical reward, in the stirring tenor aria "Nessun Dorma" -- one of the most popular numbers in all of opera.

Puccini began sketching Turandot as early as 1920. He wanted some authentic Chinese touches, so he enlisted the help of a friend's Chinese music box and some sheets of folk music.

It was slow going.  Puccini and his librettists struggled with the opera, and in particular with the drama's "love conquers all" ending.  When Puccini died, in 1924, the final act was left unfinished.

At the urging of conductor Arturo Toscanini, the opera was completed, using Puccini's sketches, by composer Franco Alfano.  Still, when Toscanni led the world premiere, in 1926 at La Scala, he famously laid down his baton at the point of the last music Puccini composed. Eventually, with Toscanini's assistance, the score was published with Alfano's ending, and that's how it's usually heard today -- with a triumphant final chorus that echoes the famous aria.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Turandot in a production led by the acclaimed Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, making his first appearance at the historic Vienna State Opera.  The vocal stars are Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazov as Calaf, and American soprano Lise Lindstrom as Turandot.