WNO makes a compelling case for its new ending of Puccini’s “Turandot”

Sun May 12, 2024 at 2:42 pm

Ewa Płonka in the title role and Yonghoon Lee as Calaf in Puccini’s Turandot at Washington National Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

Giacomo Puccini died in 1924 before completing his final opera, Turandot, and people have been trying to figure out how to finish it ever since. Modern audiences have gotten accustomed to the unconvincing ending devised for the premiere by composer Franco Alfano and librettist Giuseppe Adami, since it hinges on the prince Calaf planting a nonconsensual kiss on the titular princess, abruptly melting her icy heart. Yet despite various efforts to improve upon it (most notably one by Luciano Berio), the Alfano/Adami effort remains the standard.

On Saturday night, the Washington National Opera presented the world premiere of another new ending, from librettist Susan Soon He Stanton and composer Christopher Tin, with WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello directing. The new ending easily surpassed the low bar of emotional credibility Alfano and Adami established, and provided a compelling modern gloss on this cruel fairy tale and the glorious music Puccini wrote for it.

In this new ending, with princess Turandot set to take the throne and her suitor Calaf pleading for her affections, she reveals that she renounces love not only because of the rape and murder of her ancient ancestor Lo-u-ling but also because of her own trauma as a survivor of attempted rape. Recounting her reaction during the assault, She now sings, “This will not be the end of me. I’ll tear down the mountains, I’ll pull down the moon. I command the blade, ending his life. I’ll continue defending this kingdom. No man will ever possess me!”

Calaf urges her to find mercy in her heart, to stop the cycle of violence, and to honor the sacrifice of the slave-girl Liù, who died rather than give up Calaf’s name. Turandot chooses to become Turandot the Merciful, and to honor Liù alongside Lo-u-ling. When the big kiss comes, it’s Turandot who walks over to Calaf to plant it. The nation celebrates Turandot’s transformation, and the sun shines on a new Peking.

The modern spin sometimes tried much too hard to make its point — after Calaf reveals his name, Turandot cries, “I have won! I have won!”, and Calaf replies, “I do not have to lose for you to win,” a trite 21st-century phrasing that sounds jarring here. Yet overall Stanton’s dramatic arc creates new dimensions for the opera as a whole, giving Turandot more emotions than rage and fear, with Calaf’s love driven by something other than the desire to possess.

A few infelicities crop up in Tin’s music—a couple overly busy accompaniments obscuring the melodic line and some syrupy harmonies even Puccini never would have penned. But in the main, his music convincingly extends Puccini’s idiom to encompass these new dramatic ideas, and draws out shades of meaning that the libretto implies. The opera no longer ends with a choral reprise of “Nessun dorma” but creates a new pentatonic chorus that now triumphantly wraps the evening.

On Saturday, tenor Yonghoon Lee in the role of Calaf made it easy to understand why Turandot would transform in the finale. He has a lusciously smooth tenor voice, forceful both at the top of his range during the famous aria “Nessun dorma” and in his lowest tones, and he used it intelligently to show shades of his character beyond bullheaded determination wherever possible. In Turandot, one has to simply accept that Calaf feels irresistible desire for Turandot that leads him to risk his life for her, despite the wise counsel of his father, Liù, the ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong, and the entire citizenry of Peking to back off. Lee sung eloquently enough to suspend any disbelief.

Ewa Plonka, in the role of Turandot, also acted well, imperious as anyone could want before the final scene and then ever so slowly melting in response to Calaf’s pleas. However, Plonka’s soprano sounded tight for most of the evening, not quite as appealing as Lee’s instrument. 

Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha as Liù, on the other hand, made her somewhat inexplicable devotion to Calaf compelling with her silvery soprano; her Act 3 showpiece “Tu che di gel sei cinta” shimmered with Liù’s joy at being able to show her devotion to Calaf.

As Emperor Altoum, veteran tenor Neil Shicoff sounded progressively more tentative and feeble, which made sense when the twist was revealed at the end of Act Two. Peixin Chen, as Calaf’s father Timur wore dark glasses and shaggy clothes that gave him an oddly beatnik look; nevertheless he exuded authority with his powerful bass.

Photo: Cory Weaver

WNO’s Turandot also features a new Zambello production to accompany the new ending, with sets by Wilson Chin and costumes by Linda Cho that vaguely evoke various 20th-century totalitarian regimes. This led to the grim spectacle of a joyous dance by young women in drab gray clothes and red armbands, a Shostakovich-esque irony. A tangle of pipes and stairs evocative of a factory, or perhaps a prison, made up the main set, creating a closed-off feeling that only opened up when Turandot’s heart does the same in the finale.

In the sole touch of lightness, Ping, Pang, and Pong found themselves in a midcentury office at the beginning of Act 2, showing them as functionaries struggling to get stuff done and wishing for a less execution-heavy workplace. In Saturday’s production, these characters were known by their titles, Chancellor, Majordomo, and Head Chef, respectively, the names Ping, Pang and Pong apparently now being seen as culturally insensitive. Of the three, Ethan Vincent’s Chancellor made the biggest impression on Saturday, with his baritone switching effectively between bureaucratese and pent-up longing.

Speranza Scappucci led the Washington National Opera Orchestra in effective accompaniment, sometimes a little brass-heavy but rhythmically alert, with percussion crackling to amp up the big moments. The Washington National Opera Chorus vividly characterized its music, sounding absolutely bloodthirsty at times, yet radiant in the new closing pages, a crucial part of the ending’s transformation.

Zambello and the WNO deserve credit for taking a risk here, and Stanton and Tin deserve kudos for making it pay off. It will be interesting to see whether other companies take up this new ending, but it is clearly worthy of further performances.

Turandot runs through May 25. kennedy-center.org

One Response to “WNO makes a compelling case for its new ending of Puccini’s “Turandot””

  1. Posted May 13, 2024 at 1:10 pm by Maurice

    It was sublime. The first time I left a theater thinking “they deserve not just a Tony but a Nobel Prize for Peace as well”.

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