For nearly a century, conductors, directors and composers have been trying to finalize and fulfill the promise of “Turandot,” Puccini’s ultimate, unfinished opera. A who’s-who of 20th-century artists have tried and mostly failed. Until this past Friday night, December 2, in Amsterdam. At Dutch National Opera, director Barrie Kosky premiered a new production which makes four key—some might argue radical—changes to the work. In the process, he redeems “Turandot,” making it both more dramatically coherent and more faithful to the music that Puccini wrote. This is the first version to present the three-act opera in under two hours, and it may well also shift forever the way “Turandot” is performed in the future. 

Some history. Puccini started composing “Turandot” in 1921. He completed the first two acts and was said to be close to finishing the final third act when he died of cancer in 1924. Two weeks after his death, the most widely read newspaper in Italy at the time printed the following from Puccini’s friend and biographer Arnaldo Fraccaroli: “The final duet in the last act, the only thing not completely worked out, exists: the piece lacks only its instrumentation, but its design is traced.”

Arturo Toscanini was scheduled to lead the world premiere in 1925, but it was postponed when the conductor and Puccini’s publishers discovered that the final duet was neither traced nor even really designed. A number of composers vied to finish it, but Franco Alfano “won” the job of making sense of the sketches Puccini left behind. Toscanini supported him at the beginning but later rejected his first score as having “too much Alfano and too little Puccini.” A new, far shorter version was rushed to completion for the premiere at La Scala a year later. On opening night, April 26, 1926, Toscanini stopped the performance after the last notes that Puccini wrote, declaring, “Here the Maestro laid down his pen” as the curtain slowly lowered. 

How do you top that for drama? The versions of “Turandot” that have followed—up until Friday—haven’t. Reports differ on whether Toscanini ever conducted Alfano’s revised ending, but that version has been widely used since. Alfano’s longer, original ending was restored and recorded in 1990, but it never caught on. Luciano Berio composed a new ending in 2002. I was at the stage premiere in Los Angeles, and it was even more head-scratching than Alfano’s: the same unconvincing story set to more chromatically daring, less romantic music. Despite much fanfare—and an endorsement from the Puccini estate—Berio’s version hasn’t been mounted again in years.

Like Cerha’s completion of Berg’s “Lulu” a decade later, the Alfano ending bothers fanatics more than fans. Alfano rehashed Puccini’s medleys in a way that wraps things up with a bang, despite the dark, unromantic material that leads up to it. If nothing else, it lets the audience know when to clap. The New York Times critic who reviewed the American premiere of “Turandot” predicted the conventional wisdom that soon took hold: “Those who go to the opera purely for spectacle…will not be disappointed…it is only the end which is in the least modest or lacking of the sure-fire quality of the theater.” In the end, he wrote: “‘Turandot’ is a first-night success and ultimate failure.”

For decades, “Turandot” was not staged often because of its troublesome ending as well as its taxing roles. It was only the advent of stereo recordings that rehabilitated the opera. What is unsatisfying on stage in three acts works better when listened to on six sides of High-Fidelity records. Albums with Birgit Nilsson as Turandot in the 1950s and ‘60s paved the way for its breakout success: Decca’s recording with Joan Sutherland and the young Luciano Pavarotti in 1972. This first-rate album cemented the Alfano ending as “finished enough,” and with Pavarotti’s huge draw at the box-office, opera house started ponying up enough money to mount monster stagings to minimize the bad ending. In the 1980s and ‘90s, opera directors like Franco Zeffirelli and David Hockney made “Turandot” a bona-fide crowd-pleaser in the repertoire by matching Puccini’s big score with even bigger production values. They failed to resolve the work’s human element, or really even try, instead doubling down on sumptuous, exotic tableaus. Audiences at least were distracted. It’s hard to care about the problems of two people when you’re watching hundreds of chorus members and supernumeraries racing around giant colorful sets. 

Then, Pavarotti sang the opera’s big tenor aria on the eve of the World Cup in 1990. His “Nessun Dorma” single shot to number two on the UK pop charts and is now heard endlessly on soundtracks and at soccer stadiums. And so, while “Turandot” never has never joined the ranks of Puccini’s core (meaning: dramatically cogent and complete) works like “Tosca,” “Madame Butterfly,” and “La Bohème,” it’s not going away anymore.

That brings us back to the new production of “Turandot” in Amsterdam. Kosky has delivered us a richer opera by doing four crucial things. First, he takes the opera out of the bowdlerized, faux-China setting that countless production designers have entombed it in. Second, he takes the unfinished title character of Turandot off the stage completely. She was heard loud and clear from the rafters at the Dutch National Opera (thanks to soprano Tamara Wilson’s blazing performance, sung with piercing clarity), but she was not seen until curtain call. There are many reasons why this works. The main one is simple: Turandot is nearly impossible to sing and even harder to act. (Despite being praised for the Decca album, Sutherland wisely never sang the role on stage.) Keeping Turandot in the wings makes her easier to perform; it also makes the character’s icy reserve seem more palatable. 

When Puccini composed this opera, he was fully aware that the romantic era in which he wrote his greatest hits was now over. World War I brought about a darker mood in Europe and new technologies like the phonograph smashed the old musical models. The composer knew the  operatic music of Strauss and Debussy. Puccini tried to make his next work more modern, and he succeeded. Both the libretto and the orchestral color of “Turandot” are more 20th-century modernism than late romanticism. In the three-minute passage “Gravi, enormi ed impotenti,” you can hear the impressionist pentatonics of “Pelleas,” the orchestral heft of “Salome,” not to mention Puccini “sampling” Chinese folk tunes. In scenario or score, this is not a verismo opera; the Bellasco or Zeffirelli “more is more” directorial approach (which doesn’t suffocate  “Butterfly,” “Boheme,” or “Fanciulla”) has not served this piece well. With “Turandot” the opera—and the character—modernism’s mantra rings true: Less is definitely more.

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The third crucial change Kosky makes is to set the opera on a bare stage with mirrored walls, with all the characters in dark, drab modern dress. (They all lay on the floor motionless until the opening notes of the score are played by Lorenze Viotti and Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra.) Countless directors have done this minimal style of setting with operas, usually with pretentious ideas and laughable results. Not so here. Kosky directs the large cast assembled in a dynamic way. This crowd feels like more than a bunch of stock stereotypes in a large-scale period piece—they actually feel like a violent mob. They could represent ancient characters or thugs in contemporary China. We don’t know; either way, they feel dangerous. Enter the protagonists, Calaf, his blind father and their servant Liù. They too are dressed in the same drab fashion. Who are they? We don’t know. Because they’re not dressed in opulent, Oriental robes, we have to pay more attention to their words. 

“Turandot” is at its core a dark tale of revenge and the perils of blind ambition and adoration. Kosky gets this; at times the stage is littered with skulls. He writes in the program notes that he sees the opera as “an insomniac’s dream,” steeped in fear and desire, adding that he wants to banish the work’s appropriative “Orientalism to the orchestra pit.” The three imperial characters, Ping, Pang, and Pong, usually seem like jolly jesters at best or reductive, offensively-named stereotypes at worst; here, stripped of any Chinoiserie, they felt like a trio of petty but genuinely chilling triad members, mobsters urging Calaf to move on and not disturb their boss lest things get ugly.

If Kosky makes Scene One of Act II darker and less like the commedia dell’arte filler of most productions, Scene Two gets even darker. The top of the stage opens, and a giant hook descends to elevate a bejeweled skeleton. Meet the emperor Altoun. Sung by Cuban tenor Francesco Dominici at the 1926 premiere, and in a famous bit of luxury casting, by Peter Pears in the Decca album, Kosky reduces Altoun to a Señor Wences-style puppet. (It’s sung by tenor Marcel Reijans, but like Turandot, Reijans is never seen.) It sounds a bit crazy, and it plays even creepier—like bringing Titurel out of his tomb in “Parsifal”—but it does drive home the point: that the ritual of posing Turandot’s three riddles and then executing the men foolish enough to guess them is medieval. A giant skull descends, and dancers dressed as worms slither out of the eye sockets. This is no contest you want to enter, let alone win.

In the libretto, Calaf, the brooding romantic hero, is convinced of his righteousness and determined to make Turandot love him. This sort of blind adoration was once in style, but Kosky rightly shows Calaf to be what we might today politely call a delusional stalker. Despite ardent (if often wobbly) singing by tenor Najmiddin Mavlyanov, Calaf is not a hero in Amsterdam. His stubbornness drives the action, but not seeing him melt the heart of (to say nothing of even meeting) Turandot is no disappointment. Kosky strikingly stages “Nessun Dorma” as a Busby Berkeley-style spectacle, matching its soaring melodies with candle-lit beauty, at the same time revealing these reveries to be pure male fantasy. Which leaves Timur (played with intense, eye-covering face prosthetics by Liang Li) and Liù (sung with beauty and warmth by Kristina Mkhitaryan) as the only real characters to emerge with any humanity. 

So, it’s not surprising then that the fourth and main thing Kosky has done is ditch the Alfano ending completely—and the intermissions as well. The opera runs through all three acts without intermissions and ends with the mob—who open “Turandot” wanting blood—grieving the death of Liù, who defends Calaf’s life by sacrificing her own. This is a believable shift, unlike the wild swing of Turandot from ice princess to warm romantic lead in the Alfano ending. By making the chorus and Liù more prominent from the first minute, Kosky makes the tragedy of the opera complete. 

When Puccini’s music in Kosky’s staging stopped, it was clear to the opening night audience inside the Dutch National Opera that it was over: No more music (Alfano’s or otherwise) would be forthcoming. There was an awkward silence, and then a palpable sense of relief, a recognition that this was different, but satisfying. Applause quickly filled the void, until Kosky and his team took their bow. Then there were vociferous boos, no doubt by purists wanting the big, happy finale. But the applause quickly drowned out the nay-sayers—followed by an even bigger roar from the cast and chorus on stage who let out a huge whoop after the curtain came down.

After the performance, the director of Dutch National Opera, Sophie de Lint, spoke of the challenges that come along with “Turandot.”  The opera requires immense forces to stage—added choristers, dancers, and 96 musicians in the pit—and de Lint admitted they had to approve three nights of overtime pay to pull off this production. Another problem is the era in which it was created: the exoticism, the misogyny, the problematic ending. Kosky doesn’t just minimize these problems; he adroitly manages the epic scale of “Turandot,” marshaling the power of its music without letting its size crush the human drama that is essential to Puccini’s art.

From our late-capitalist vantage point in 2022, it’s easier to see that Carlo Gozzi’s original fairy tale is not a happy one. The “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” jackpot that is winning Turandot’s heart is not a mature, healthy way to earn a bride. Kosky’s version forces us to ask: Why did people believe that a simple love duet could bring this opera to a satisfying finale for so long?

Maybe, coming out of the aftermath of the Great War, Puccini couldn’t bring himself to write another tragic finale. Maybe the composer’s family and publishing house wanted a hit to keep the money rolling in after his death. Still, why couldn’t everyone involved—including the composer himself—see that maybe there was a reason Puccini couldn’t find the inspiration to write anything further after Liù, the only character he invented, dies? Liù is the classic Puccini heroine who wins over our hearts and whose death is rightly the climax of the drama. The version performed in Amsterdam uses every note that Puccini not only wrote, but that he approved for his publisher to have engraved. For months, Puccini tinkered with the proposed finale to follow. He never composed it. Does this truly make “Turandot” unfinished? Or has the opera been completed all this time, just waiting for someone to solve its riddle? ¶

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James C. Taylor

James C. Taylor is a longtime correspondent for Opera Magazine and a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, New Jersey Star-Ledger, and other publications. He also edits and produces...