Saturday 16 December 2017

Puccini: the last in a great line of Italian operatic masters

Giacomo Puccini
Giacomo Puccini

George Hamilton

Giacomo Puccini was the last of the great Italian composers, bringing the curtain down on the mighty era of opera that had delivered masterpieces from Aïda through Norma to The Barber of Seville.

None of those were his. Verdi, Bellini, and Rossini were the men behind those tours de force and many more besides - in Verdi's case Rigoletto ("La donna è mobile"), Il Trovatore (the "Anvil Chorus"), La Traviata ("Libiamo", "Parigi, o cara"), to name but three.

Highlights from Puccini's catalogue include La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, and Tosca. His final opera, Turandot, was premiered in La Scala, Milan, under the direction of Arturo Toscanini, on Sunday, April 25, 1926.

Puccini's place in the pantheon was secure when he turned his attention to this torrid tale of the eastern princess with a heart of ice who has issued an edict that any prince wishing to marry her must solve three riddles, or else he'll die. Well, opera is, as Samuel Johnson declared is an "exotic and irrational entertainment".

Puccini was at the top of his game when he set to work. He was looking for a leading lady who'd be unlike the doomed heroines of his previous successes like Mimi in La Bohème, Madame Butterfly, and Tosca. He had the bones of the story, and he had the musical inspiration. He brought in Toscanini as his orchestral consultant.

But putting it all together proved no easy task.

He'd already been working on it for around four years when his health started to fail. He'd developed throat cancer, and he succumbed to his illness in 1924, leaving unfinished the final scene - a duet.

Puccini had sketched out his intentions and had asked that arrangements be made to have the opera completed.

A composer by the name of Franco Alfano, popular at the time, was invited to deliver the final two scenes.

But his efforts didn't meet with universal approval, not least from the man who'd direct the premiere, Arturo Toscanini himself.

On the opening night, two years after Puccini's death, Toscanini directed the performance right into the third and final act and then stopped, two scenes short of the conclusion. He turned to the audience and announced: "At this point, the master laid down his pen."

Alfano's conclusion - the love duet and the final chorus - went unheard.

Toscanini did conduct subsequent performances of Turandot, but only after Alfano had amended and abbreviated his contribution.

Within a fortnight, Toscanini had stepped down temporarily as La Scala's principal conductor. Despite its trials and ribulations, Turandot has developed an during appeal. The storyline has all the requisite drama, and the music, typical for Puccini, is full of good tunes. The one you're sure to know is "Nessun dorma" - "None shall sleep". No wonder.

Turandot has issued a new decree that threatens them all with execution at dawn. But Calaf, the prince, lying awake looking at the stars, is convinced that he is the man. He's right. The ice maiden melts.

Turandot is one opera that has a happy ending.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm toda, Saturday morning.

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