Mon, Sep 08, 2008 - Page 13 News List

Puccini’s unfinished business

The composer suffered from academic neglect after his death as a result of his popular appeal, but conferences like the one held at the NTNU last week are trying to remedy the situation

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Juergen Maehder discovered the longer first version of Alfano’s completion of Turandot in 1979. It was in the archives of Puccini’s publisher Ricordi in Milan, but it had been wrongly catalogued. When he sat down to examine it, Maehder assumed it was the well-known completion that has been performed all over the world ever since Puccini died leaving his final opera unfinished in 1924. But he quickly saw that it contained some additional material. After further work, he established that this was Alfano’s original conclusion to the opera, but that it had been cut before the premiere on the insistence of the conductor, Arturo Toscanini, who thought it was too long. Thus it was that Alfano’s original, fuller, completion finally came to light, and it has since been extensively performed, first in Berlin in 1982, then by the New York City Opera the following year, and then in Rome and Bonn in 1985.

Maehder’s knowledge of Puccini’s sketches for the end of Turandot is exhaustive. The composer died after a heart attack during surgery for throat cancer in Brussels. But he hadn’t expected to die, Maehder explained. Turandot, even though unfinished, was already being rehearsed, and one of Puccini’s last recorded remarks was to ask how the rehearsals were going. His sketches for the ending, therefore, were not intended for someone else, but for himself.

On one famous page, he wrote “from here on Tristan”, meaning that the big love duet with which the opera was going to conclude would be somewhat in the style of Wagner’s famous love duet in his Tristan und Isolde. It was probably Puccini’s private joke, addressed to himself, but it makes a fascinating comment on musical heredity nonetheless.

Maehder has even studied the paperclip markings left on Puccini’s manuscript notes. Paperclips in those days weren’t coated in plastic, so they rusted easily. Puccini lived close to the lake in Torre del Lago, and the climate there is notably humid. So the clips rusted quickly, and left a reverse impression on top of the page underneath. These marks have enabled Maehder to work out the exact sequence of the musical sketches — an example of academic close attention to detail if ever there was one.

Also discussed was the alternative ending to Turandot composed by Luciano Berio and first performed in 2002. Maehder proved somewhat skeptical about this, unsure if it was indeed all by Berio himself who, like Puccini, was also seriously ill with cancer at the time. But what is certain is that Berio also used the Puccini sketches extensively, even incorporating ideas and motifs neglected by Alfano.

All this talk of illness and uncompleted work obsessed me as I left. Do what you can while you can, I thought, whether it’s in the sunlight of Torre del Lago or elsewhere. Time gives us the gift of life, then passes on. Academic conferences are not always as academic as they seem.

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