In remembrance of an interrupted inspiration the unfinished Turandot
After the consecutive successes within a few years at the New York Met of Fanciulla del West in 1910 and il Trittico – a triptych of three single acts composed of il Tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi in 1918, Giacomo Puccini was at the summit of his career.
His operas had become immense successes and were being sung in opera houses across the globe, from London to Paris, from Milan to Vienna, and from New York to Buenos Aires, Manon Lescaut, La Bohème, Tosca and Madame Butterfly stand triumphant, and the Maestro from Lucca rises to become the greatest living representative of Italian opera and a worthy successor to Giuseppe Verdi.
Even so, he feels the need to get to work once more and find a new libretto for which to compose his music. At the end of the Great War, which transformed music throughout Europe and the world, new figures are emerging: Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, the birth of new orchestral promises on the musical horizon of the new century, and Puccini – by now sixty years old – knows he needs to renew himself and develop new musical colours and harmonies in his upcoming work if he is to surpass his work so far.
Puccini therefore keeps himself well informed on the new musical perspectives which these emerging musicians represent and, as we can read in his correspondence, he finds himself doubting whether, at his age, he is still able to renew his creative genius. Yet this is exactly what he did in Turandot.
After numerous tergiversations and many rejected librettos Puccini’s choice finally fell on a Chinese tale by Carlo Gozzi, which had already been put to music some years earlier by composer Ferruccio Busoni. An enthusiastic Puccini sees in this story the possibility to musically exalt the “triumph of love” and thus finally be able to write a duet worthy to rival the finale of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.
Clausetti and Valcarenghi, who had taken over the direction of the Ricordi editing house, urge Puccini to make this new opera, enlisting the assistance of Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni for the libretto.
To musically exalt the passion Turandot; that’s what Puccini is really enthusiastic about, as to him only heroines of flesh and blood, forged by passion and falling prey to a merciless destiny are of any significance. A certain fatality and angst hangs over Puccini throughout the elaboration of his Turandot, as well as a certain hesitancy. If it hadn’t been for the tenacity of the Casa Ricordi, obliging Puccini to stick with his choice and not change libretto along the way, Turandot might have never been composed.
The two librettists are asked to write very quickly by Puccini, allowing him to compose the two first acts in a relatively short amount of time. In early 1924, Puccini starts composing the third and final act, arriving at the point of Liu’s death in the summer of the same year, when illness overtakes him.
Since the autumn of 1923, after just having finished writing the second act, Puccini is taken by fits of violent and highly painful coughing. Having always been a big cigarette smoker – as is illustrated by his countless pictures where a cigarette is never absent from his fingers – the illness was not the fruit of mere chance. He had already had bouts of coughing in the past, but this time it was different. His coughs produce a persistent and ever more violent ache in the throat. After consulting numerous physicians, he goes for a brief stay at the thermal baths of Salsomaggiore near Parma, but to no avail.
Alarmed by a letter from Puccini’s wife Elvira describing his ailing state of health, his friend and conductor Arturo Toscanini comes to visit him at Viareggio on the pretext of discussing the progress on Turandot and the organisation of the rehearsals for its premiere the next season at the Scala. Toscanini finds an aged and enfeebled Puccini but doesn’t let on, and the two friends meet again a few weeks later together with Adami and Simoni in Milan. At this occasion, in late September 1924, Puccini plays the two first acts of Turandot on the piano, as well as the beginning of the third act until Liu’s death. He also plays some melodies for the final duet but nothing concrete, as it wasn’t yet written.
Toscanini is highly impressed by the music whose power and innovativeness presage a truly unique opera. But he is also worried about the visibly deteriorating Puccini, whose hair is turning white and now coughs ceaselessly.
After the rehearsals, feeling his health to be failing, Puccini and his son return to Florence in October 1924 to consult with his doctors. After more thorough examinations, a cancer of the throat is diagnosticated. But the malignant tumour is already at a highly advanced and inoperable stage, a fact which is kept from Puccini to whom the gravity of the situation is not explained. Only his son Antonio is told.
Thus, it is decided to take Puccini to the Institut de la Couronne at Ixelles, Brussels, in order to undergo a six-week-long treatment with Dr. Ledoux who has already obtained many favourable results with his method.
Puccini writes to Adami: “I shall go to Brussels to a famous institute…” “shall this treatment condemn me?” “shall I be able to finish Turandot?”
Accompanied by his son Antonio and Clausetti from the Casa Ricordi, Puccini departs on November 4, 1924, arriving in Brussel three days later. He has with him a few pages of written material for the final duet covered with his latest annotations. Extremely tired, Puccini is treated with radium for several weeks, during which time he is authorised to go and see a representation of his Madame Butterfly at the Monnaie opera house.
On the morning of November 24th, Puccini is operated for three hours under local anaesthesia since, as a diabetic, he is unable to undergo complete anaesthesia. Seven needles are inserted into the tumour, and for three days after the operation Dr. Ledoux remains confident, releasing a positive press-release to the worlds newspapers. But Puccini is in fact suffering terribly.
At his bedside we find his son Antonio, his daughter Fosca, Clausetti, and his long-time friend Sybil Seligman. His wife Elvira, ailing herself, had been unable to make the journey from Viareggio to Brussels.
Unfortunately, during the afternoon of November 28th, 1924, Puccini has a cardiac malaise and dies on the morning of November 29th, after having received extreme unction from the papal nuncio. Next to his bedside are the drafts of the final duet, forever left unfinished.
The announcement of Puccini’s death is met with emotion and grief throughout the world and most especially in the worlds opera houses. At the Milan Scala the scheduled performance of Nerone by Boito is cancelled as a sign of mourning.
Puccini’s obsequies are held at Brussels on the 1st of December 1924 in the church of Saint Mary in Schaerbeek. His remains are then taken to Italy, arriving at Milan on December 3rd, where a commemorative service is held in his honour, the funerary oration being delivered by the Duce, Benito Mussolini, whilst Arturo Toscanini conducts the funeral march from Puccini’s second opera, Edgar.
The real tribute paid to Puccini by the Italians was to come two years later, on April 25th, 1926, during the first representation of Turandot at the Milan Scala in the absence of Mussolini, as Toscanini had refused to conduct the fascist hymn. Toscanini stopped the opera at point of Turandot’s death and Timur’s intervention, even though the opera had in fact been completed by Franco Alfano. Turning towards the public, he laid down his baton and said:
“Here the opera ends, for it is at this point that the Maestro died”
After this night, Toscanini would never conduct Turandot again for the rest of his life.
Puccini now rests at the family chapel at his villa in Torre del Lago, villa which he so loved, and which has since become a museum.
It was thus that died in Brussels the last great opera composer who, by an oeuvre both modern, intimate and dramatic, ushered opera into the twentieth century.
The unfinished Turandot becomes the musical and artistic testament of a musician who dedicated his entire life to theatrical music.
Since several decades, Puccini and his operas have been the object of renewed attention which have underlined the geniality and complexity of this perfectionist composer who understood as no other that everything which makes an opera must be turned toward immediate emotion so that the public by fully touched by the music of his unforgettable characters’ fatal destinies.
On November 29th, 1924, Giacomo Puccini died in Brussels.
This great composer, last of the 20th century, is commemorated by a street name in Anderlecht, Brussels.
The association shall create a support committee so as to raise funds in the aim of worthily commemorating this musical giant who died in our country.
Sponsors, artists, fans, please join « Si canta Puccini » and help inaugurate a bust or a memorial plaque worthy of Giacomo Puccini so that the whole of Brussels may remember him!