This may be the most spectacular staging of an opera this season – the famed Zeffirelli production of Puccini’s last opera, Turandot.
The opera tells the story of Prince Calaf, who falls in love with the ice-cold Princess Turandot. To obtain permission to marry her, a suitor has to solve three riddles; any wrong answer results in death. The heads of former suiters who have failed the test are displayed on pikes at the start of the opera. The Prince of Persia, who has just failed his test is led out to be beheaded as the opera begins.
Calaf passes the test, but Turandot still refuses to marry him. She is obviously a sore loser. He offers her a way out: if she is able to learn his name before dawn the next day, then at daybreak he will die. It is at this point that Calaf, the tenor, sings the famous aria Nessun Dorma (No one sleeps). The reason no one is sleeping is that Turandot has her troops going around torturing people in order to learn Calaf’s name.
Of course, this aria has been made famous by the Three Tenors, perhaps too famous by now. It is never quite clear why Calaf or all the other suitors want to marry Turandot in the first place since she is not a very nice person. But this being opera, we must accept the story as it is.
The opera was unfinished at the time of Puccini’s death in 1924, and was completed by Franco Alfano in 1926. There is a well-known anecdote of the world premiere – when Toscanini got to the point at which Puccini died he stopped conducting, turned to the audience and said “Here the composer laid down his pen.”
The last few minutes of the opera, composed by Alfano, do not sound like real Puccini in my opinion, only “pseudo-Puccini”. We can clearly hear the difference between the music of a genius and a hack. Still you should not miss one of the Met’s all-time famous productions, especially since other great Zeffirelli productions such as Tosca and Falstaff have been retired.