Friday, April 28, 2006

Turandot rewritten

A friend tells me that someone has done a new completion of Puccini’s Turandot. Someone, it turns out, is the composer Luciano Berio. Why is it felt necessary to redo Alfano's work?

It could easily be argued that I should have known all about Franco Alfano since he has been in the news lately, but the fact is that the bell simply didn't ring. When I bought the ticket in Rome I was under the impression that this was a new opera, and instead it turned out to be a new production of an old opera. All the information I was able to glean was from the program notes and based on my somewhat primitive Italian. It explained the source of the plot in great detail, and talked about Alfano's work in the movies, where he is called Frank.

When I read articles about this composer and his work on Turandot, I cannot connect what I read to my own experience of performances of both Turandot and Sakùntala. While in a state of almost complete ignorance--though I could remember the approximate date of Puccini's death--I connected Puccini’s Turandot (1924) with Alfano’s La Leggenda di Sakùntala (1921).

Now that I know that Sakùntala preceded Turandot and read the claim that Puccini had orchestrated most of Turandot himself before his death, if I assume these facts are correct, I must conclude that Puccini was influenced by Alfano. For Puccini to write an oriental opera on a mythical theme so soon after Alfano's oriental opera on a mythical theme cannot be a coincidence.

Before I heard Sakùntala I had no idea how much of Turandot was not Puccini. Obviously the arias are. This was Puccini's great gift--the ability to write such deeply personal music for the voice, in particular the soprano and tenor voices. He did not pass this gift to Alfano.

But the sound, the orchestration is very much like Alfano. He was a very talented orchestrator, but much more focused on technique and style than Puccini who never allowed his focus to drift very far from the characters of the opera. Compare with the instrumental parts of Butterfly.

Alfano's vocal writing in Sakùntala seemed closer to Wagner than Puccini. His very heavy orchestra was more Italian than Wagnerian. Wagner likes a lot of thickening in the lower pitches, even going so far as to invent instruments to achieve this effect, which Alfano does not do. Wagner would also never write melodramatic humming chorus into an opera. But the vocal lines of Sakùntala are static with lots of long notes, somewhat reminiscent of Wagner. No melody stayed with me.

I am going to propose an alternative fantasy history: Puccini became acquainted with Alfano’s opera La Leggenda di Sakùntala and was attracted to its oriental subject matter and somewhat more modern neo-Romantic orchestral writing and decided that he would write an oriental opera of his own. He incorporated elements of Alfano’s orchestral style while fully retaining his own style of writing for the voice.

It may even be possible that the Puccini estate knew of this artistic connection and deliberately chose Alfano to complete the score for this reason. If there is this musical connection between the two men, Alfano is the perfect person to complete Turandot.

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