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Puccini's grand finale and its many endings

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

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Exotic tale: Puccini was working on the final scenes of Turandot when he died

Exotic tale: Puccini was working on the final scenes of Turandot when he died

Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Exotic tale: Puccini was working on the final scenes of Turandot when he died

It was February 1924. Giacomo Puccini, that giant of Italian opera, had already spent several years on what would be the last of his great musical dramas.

With his trademark attention to detail, he'd been working on Turandot - the oriental extravaganza that gave us the showstopper 'Nessun Dorma' - when he began to suffer from a sore throat.

The symptoms persisted. He consulted a number of doctors, who suspected tonsillitis and suggested a variety of natural remedies.

It got worse. He wrote of the torment he was suffering, finding it difficult to speak. He couldn't button the collar of his shirt. It would be nine months before Puccini - a long-time heavy smoker - would be diagnosed with a tumour in his throat.

In the 1920s, the specialist journal ENT and Audiology News has noted, patients with such cancers were left to their fate.

Surgical intervention was not yet an option. But there was a clinic in Belgium experimenting with a new type of radium therapy.

Turandot was almost complete. The premiere was planned for the following April. Puccini travelled to Brussels with his son, Antonio, taking with him, all sketched out, the missing final scenes.

He never had a chance to complete his opera. The treatment - involving radioactive needles and a tracheotomy - was extremely severe. After three weeks, he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 65.

To finish the opera, Antonio turned to Franco Alfano - well known at the time. But there was somebody else with other ideas.

Arturo Toscanini, Puccini's choice as conductor for the opening night, had collaborated closely as the opera took shape.

When Turandot eventually premiered in La Scala, Milan, a year behind schedule, Toscanini famously stopped it short with the final notes Puccini wrote. Alfano's addition was omitted altogether.

Toscanini maintained Puccini had played him his intended ending on the piano a month before he died, and Alfano's efforts weren't true to this.

Toscanini insisted on tweaks here and there and a series of cuts that reduced the overall score by 109 bars - some seven or eight minutes. And this became the standard version.

A 1982 production in London restored the full Alfano version. Twenty years after that, an alternative ending for Turandot was proposed.

This was the work of Luciano Berio, a 20th-century Italian composer.

Unlike Alfano who was working in exactly the same artistic context as Puccini himself, Berio at least had the benefit of hindsight, and the opportunity that gave to put Turandot into historical perspective.

For this exotic tale of the Chinese princess of the title who hated men until the stranger prince came out of nowhere to win her heart, for all its musical brilliance, was a long way from the real-life world of the operas that made Puccini's name - La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly.

The doomed love story in the Parisian garret. The corrupt police chief trying to oust the artist and have the opera singer to himself. The tragic tale of the geisha girl caught up in a world of deceit.

Puccini was the master of opera verismo - theatrical musical drama based, more or less, on real life. Turandot - however it ends - proved him the master of the exotic as well.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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