Turandot – the last great Italian opera
An analysis and survey of audio and DVD recordings by Lee Denham

On the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Decca’s legendary recording of Turandot featuring an all-star cast and conducted by Zubin Mehta, and to mark in 2023 a brand-new studio recording of the work from Santa Cecilia in Rome, conducted by Antonio Pappano.


In spite of the range and breadth in Ralph Moore’s series of Opera Conspectuses, from Mozart’s da Ponte operas to twentieth century masterpieces, such as Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, there are one or two omissions. One day his much-anticipated survey of Schoenberg’s masterpiece, Moses und Aron, may appear (Ed. Don’t hold your breath), but there are also other more notable absentees, such as Puccini’s Turandot. This is because, as Ralph quite rightly asserts, this opera is the recipient of what many would argue as one of the most perfect opera recordings ever made, by Decca in August 1972, featuring Dame Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti – so what is the point of doing a Conspectus when everyone already knows what the best recording is going to be? This survey therefore – **spoiler alert**- is not one  that is going to challenge that conclusion, but will rather consider some of the other different recordings and films of this opera featuring other artists who did not appear on that Decca recording, the roll call of which is quite staggering and includes: Maria Callas, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Eva Turner, Birgit Nilsson, Mirella Freni, Magda Olivero, Nicola Zaccaria, Giovanni Martinelli, Jussi Björling, Mario del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Plácido Domingo and Herbert von Karajan, all of whom have contributed to the recorded history of Puccini in immeasurable ways. Of course, Decca’s recording first released in 1973 is also included and retains Ralph’s ‘untouchable’ accolade, but there are other recordings of significance that shine almost as brightly.


On 25 April 1926, a year and five months after the death of Puccini, his final opera was premiered at La Scala, Milan. It was a high-profile event, led by the most famous conductor in the world at the time, Arturo Toscanini, along with a star-studded cast. It was a success that propelled the work towards international fame, with premieres at the Met in the same year (with Maria Jeritza as Turandot and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi as Calaf and Tullio Serafin in the pit, no less), while the Covent Garden premiere took place less than twelve months after. The opera was also received with much respect by the critics, noting how the composer had “all but completely dismissed the sugariness that made so much of his earlier work too easily palatable and too quickly cloying” [Eric Bloom, The Guardian, London 8 June 1927]. However, what nobody realised was that they were witnessing the final opera of the great Italian tradition. Of course, there have been other fine operas by Italian composers since, worthy efforts by Ferruccio Busoni, Ottorino Respighi and Ildebrando Pizzetti, to name three, but nothing which has claimed even a tenuous foothold in the operatic repertory, which had been largely dominated by Italian composers since 1598. In that year, a certain Jacopo Peri presented a work performed at the Palazzo Corsi in Florence named Dafne, based upon the eponymous Greek legend, which incorporated both melodic speech set to music and recitatives as a central part of the drama for the first time in a manner modern-day listeners would recognise as ‘opera’. Thereafter, opera dominated Italian musical life and Italian opera dominated opera, from the works of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), through to foreign composers such as Gluck, Händel and Mozart who also wrote operas in Italian, until the nineteenth century when the geniuses of Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and then Verdi blazed away, creating an operatic style that became known as bel canto. Ironically, it took a non-Italian, namely Richard Wagner, to shake the foundations upon which Italian opera, with its reliance on set-pieces and recitatives, was built, when his opera Lohengrin was premiered at Bologna in 1871. Despite Wagner being a vocal critic of the bel canto style, when his opera was translated into Italian, ironically, it revealed itself to be a continuation of that very bel canto tradition he had so criticised and the Italians embraced it as if it were their own (one of Luciano Pavarotti’s unfulfilled wishes was to have sung and recorded Lohengrin – in Italian of course). However, its use of leitmotifs as well as its demonstration of new methods for harmonic and lyrical expansion, enabled dramatic continuity as well as symphonic expansion in opera. Wagner’s ideas were eagerly taken up by Verdi in his later works, as well as the emerging ‘giovane scuolo’ (young school) of contemporary Italian composers who seized upon Wagner’s radical rethinking of the genre and fused it to their own idea, which was to apply it to dramas of everyday people in real-life situations devoid of symbolism, in seamless, through-composed music; they called it verismo. This final blossoming of Italian opera burst onto the scene withPietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana in 1890 and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci in 1892, followed by works fromAlfredo Catalani, Francesco Cilèa, Alberto Franchetti, Umberto Giordano, Alberto Zandonai – and Giacomo Puccini.

Puccini’s first great success, Manon Lescaut, was premiered in 1893, ironically in the same month as Verdi’s final opera Falstaff was first performed. However, he first started to work on what would become his final opera, Turandot, in 1919, when he became interested in the German playwright Friedrich von Schiller’s (1759-1805) adaptation of a dramatized fairy tale by the eighteenth-century Italian playwright, Carlo Gozzi (1720-1806) of the same name. This, in turn, was based upon one of the tales from late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century translations of The Arabian Nights, in particular, the story of the daughter (dokht) of Turan, whose suitors had to navigate a route full of hidden swords to the princess’s palace before having to answer four riddles to win her hand in marriage.

Most people reading this will know of the story of Turandot, a tale set in Ancient China of a young princess who possessed an icy beauty, sharp and crystalline, but one who is haunted by the murder of an ancestor and consents to marry only the man who can successfully answer three riddles. Her glamour and unattainability attracts men of royal blood from the world over, all of whom are unable to solve the riddles and so are beheaded until, Calaf, the deposed prince of Tartary, accepts and is successful at the challenge, much to the despair of the princess, who begs her father, the Emperor, to be released from her oath. He refuses, so Calaf offers his own solution – discover his own name by dawn and his life will be forfeit to Turandot and she will be free from the oath. As the action shifts into the final act, two individuals seen with Calaf at the beginning of the opera are seized violently by Turandot’s guards: Timur, Calaf’s father, and his slave girl, Liù. They are brought to the princess and to spare Timur’s torture, Liù says that only she knows the unknown prince’s name, but refuses to divulge it, even when she herself is tortured. Turandot asks Liù, why she will not reveal the name, to which the slave girl answers simply “for love”, before seizing the sword of one of the guards and killing herself, thus taking Calaf’s secret with her to the grave. The final scene witnesses Calaf confronting Turandot alone, admonishing her for her cruelty, before kissing her, the burning passion of which thaws the Icy Princess, whose uncompromising hatred is transfigured into universal love, a point proven when Calaf reveals his true identity to the Princess who then tells the Emperor that she has indeed learned the name of the Unknown Prince and “His name is Love!” (“Il suo nome è Amor!”). The opera then ends in general rejoicing, with the corpse of Liù still warm.

Puccini was also inspired by an acquaintance who was a foreign diplomat and a collector of Oriental art and had in his possession a Chinese music box that provided Puccini with some of the themes for his opera, including fragments of the Chinese national anthem which underscore the music of the Three Ministers, as well as the authentic Chinese folksong “Mo-li-hua” (“The Jasmine Flower”) – the music identified with Princess Turandot. He required a huge orchestra to evoke the barbaric majesty of Ancient China, which includes a full complement of strings and harps, triple woodwind, two alto saxophones, four French horns, three trumpets (plus six onstage), four trombones (and a further four onstage), a whole battalion of percussion with assorted gongs and tam-tams, as well as at the end of Act II (and possibly in homage to Wagner who also used the same instrument at the same point in his opera, Lohengrin), an organ. It marked a significant departure from the more modest resources required for his previous operas that had all featured those ordinary folk of verismo – poets, painters, seamstresses, singers, sailors and barmaids, and was certainly a break from tradition for him to be setting a story that was essentially a mythical tale. Some critics have pointed out that as a result, he was out of his depth, hence his struggles to finish it, he being dissatisfied and uninspired by its ending. Perhaps that is not surprising when in this opera, verismo crashes into exactly what it was trying to get away from – fairy-tales, this one being set in the exotic, far-away land of Ancient China, with a murderous princess who can be ‘humanised’ only by the kiss of a man. No wonder Puccini couldn’t finish it and as a result Turandot was destined to be the last of the great Italian operas, whereby verismo self-immolated, hurling itself into the flames in its very own Operadämmerung.

Art imitating Life 

Except it was more true-to-life than perhaps many may have thought at the time. In 1884, Puccini started a relationship with a married woman named Elvira Gemignani who, two years later, bore him a son out of wedlock. Catholic Italy was scandalised, but Puccini persevered and soon after, when Elvira’s husband was killed (ironically, by the jealous husband of his lover) they married. The irony was that after having persisted through so much scandal, the union was not a happy one; Elvira became jealous and aloof, a situation that worsened when she suspected (quite rightly) that her husband was having affairs. Many have speculated that these illicit liaisons were the inspiration behind much of Puccini’s music, with possibly each opera inspired by a different woman whom Puccini had loved – indeed, in the first six operas, when the heroines die, the opera dies with them: Anna (Le Villi), Fidelia (Edgar), Manon Lescaut (Manon Lescaut), Mimì (La bohème), Tosca (Tosca), and Cio-Cio-San (Madama Butterfly). La rondine ends as Magda/Pauletta finishes her love affair and abandons Ruggero. Only in La fanciulla del West does Puccini find a bittersweet happy ending, albeit with a parting of a different kind.

In 1909, Elvira became convinced that her husband was having another affair, this time with one of their maids, Doria Manfredi and publicly accused her of doing so. Once again, Catholic Italy was scandalised, so much so that Doria could not cope with the humiliation and committed suicide. The subsequent autopsy revealed that Doria was virgo intacta and could not have committed adultery with Puccini, or indeed anyone for that matter, which resulted in the composer having to pay the Manfredi family significant compensation to save his wife from going to jail. However, the significance of a story whereby a beautiful woman could not be loved and whose reputation is saved by the ultimate sacrifice of a servant girl, is surely not lost on a fairy tale such as Turandot. Furthermore, Puccini died having completed the final score all the way up to, and including, the death of the slave girl, so once more with the death of a woman an opera written by Puccini ends – except this time it would need to be finished by another composer.

The Final Scene

It is a point that was inadvertently reinforced by Arturo Toscanini at the premiere in 1926, when he stopped the performance at the death of Liù, turned to the audience and said: “A questo punto termina l’opera per la morte del compositore” (“Here the opera ends, because at this point the composer died”) and the curtain was lowered. There has been some speculation as to whether Toscanini conducted any of the following nights, but newspaper reports appear to confirm that he probably conducted the following two performances, which included the Alfano completion – however, there is no disputing that he never conducted the opera again, even if nobody appears to know why. Perhaps he was dissatisfied with the ending – or maybe, even his role in it.

There is no doubt that the conclusion of this opera is problematic; a happy ending so soon after the self-sacrifice of the slave girl is about as dramatically knuckleheaded as having Isolde contentedly walk off stage on the arm of King Mark after her Liebestod, as well as being in as much bad taste as having a love duet between Pinkerton and Kate, cradling their new son, after the suicide of Butterfly – except that is exactly what happens. Composition sketches indicate that Puccini was having the same doubts and was clearly struggling to find a suitable ending. Had he lived, maybe between him and his librettists, a different conclusion may have been worked out – after all, it took three significant revisions after failed live performances before Madama Butterfly became the work we are familiar with today (and which the distinguished British music critic Alan Blyth called “one of the three greatest operas of the twentieth century”); in addition, there are sketches indicating that the composer was considering composing a revised ending for La rondine at his death, one that ends with the suicide of Magda/Paulette rather than her walking away on the arm of her rich ‘protector’ Rambaldo and abandoning her lover Ruggero (that potential revised ending has indeed been staged in the US by the director Marta Domingo). So there is a precedent for revisions, and the original libretto supplied to Puccini by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni was seriously flawed, a point that was clearly evident even at the London premiere, when Eric Blom in his review for the Guardian newspaper observed that “the whimsical fantasy of the original , which, of course, is one of Carlo Gozzi’s dramatic fairy-tales, has all but evaporated”. This is significant, for not only are the trio of government ministers no longer the humorous observers of the original but are, instead, presented by Puccini more as colourful scherzandi in between the blood and thunder of the main action, but the libretto of Turandot does not have the final soliloquy/aria crucial for all tragi-comedies to work, whereby the main protagonist has an “It’s a fair cop, guv’ – I was wrong all along” speech, apologises to all for his behaviour and appeals for forgiveness, which is granted, for all to end in general, bitter-sweet rejoicing. In short, the failure is because Adami and Simoni were unable to properly transition the tale of Turandot from its roots in commedia dell’arte into grand opera.

At his death, Puccini left thirty-six pages of sketches for the final scene, containing occasional hints of melody and orchestration, but with much missing. He had hoped that Riccardo Zandonai would complete the work, but after objections from Puccini’s son, Franco Alfano was eventually chosen, since his own opera La leggenda di Sakùntala was similar to Turandot both in setting and heavyweight orchestration. His first draft of the completion [ALFANO I] was severely criticised by Toscanini, ostensibly since he had the temerity to orchestrate some of the passages where Puccini had left no instructions and even added a few lines of his own to the libretto, which was considered incomplete even by Puccini. He was therefore forced to submit a revised version that followed Puccini’s sketches with a narrow-minded dogmatism which meant that some of the libretto was subsequently omitted, merely since Puccini had left no indication of how he wanted it to sound; it is this version [ALFANO II] that is most commonly heard today.

It is clear to my ears that Alfano took his cue for the final scene from the very opening chords of the work, where the two unrelated keys of C-sharp major and D minor are superimposed in an attempt to evoke the executioner’s falling axe, as the three chords which open the final scene seem to echo. In Alfano I, the additional passages seem to be orchestrated from the same cloth and lend the music a more savage and barbaric hue than the more familiar Alfano II. It is difficult, too, to understand quite why Toscanini would think the revised version preferable, not just since much of the libretto, which helps explain Turandot’s actions, was omitted, but (and in particular) the final chorus, for which Puccini just left some vague mention of the reprise of Calaf’s third act aria, is now the toe-curlingly banal ‘Let’s-hear-it-from-y’all-one-more-time: Nessun dorma’, instead of Alfano’s inspired adaption of it, which finds both Turandot and Calaf soaring above the chorus on the word “amor”. When Alfano’s original version was finally premiered at London’s Barbican Centre in 1982, by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Owain Arwell Hughes, with Sylvia Sass as Turandot and Franco Bonisolli as Calaf, the distinguished Austrian musicologist and Puccini specialist Mosco Carner wrote in the programme notes: ”For all those who have studied Alfano’s original score there cannot be the faintest doubt that it is far better balanced than the shortened second version and that the change in Turandot from an ice-cold princess to a loving woman is made to appear more gradual and psychologically far more plausible than is the case in the revised version.” This conclusion needs however to be offset by the Guardian critic at the London premiere of the entire opera some half a century prior, who wrote of the Alfano II revised ending: “A curious fact is that the concluding pages finished after the composer’s death by Franco Alfano, have more of the authentic Puccini flavour than anything else in the score”. However, from this point on it is up to readers to decide for themselves which version is the more authentic, since the original Alfano completion has now been recorded both as a standalone scene for Decca (featuring Josephine Barstow), as well as part of the latest complete set from Warner Classics (featuring Kaufmann and Pappano) and both are reviewed below.

Also reviewed are several performances of the completion made by Luciano Berio, who was commissioned by the Puccini Estate at the beginning of this century to try to provide a more nuanced and less triumphalist conclusion to the opera. In part he succeeds, allowing the union of Calaf and Turandot to triumph by acknowledging that it is only so at a cost of much bloodshed and at a cost to others, with the opera now ending quietly. On the other hand, the musical language is closer to that of Berg’s Wozzeck than anything Puccini ever wrote and means that by the time the curtain falls at the end, you have forgotten how it has all began.

There have been other endings too, albeit not recorded, most notably by the American musicologist Janet Maguire, who believed Puccini coded his intentions for the finale in the sketches and in the score beforehand and so produced her own completion that was premiered in 2010, as well as from the Chinese composer Hao Weiya, that was premiered in 2007. Neither has garnered much success.

It is of some irony, then, that an opera that is driven along by a tale of solving riddles should therefore be one where the final riddle of all – how it should have ended – remains unsolved.

To read the survey of recordings of Turandot, download the full document here as a pdf.