Puccini's 'Turandot' : The End of the Great Tradition

By Debly, Patricia | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1993 | Go to article overview

Puccini's 'Turandot' : The End of the Great Tradition


Debly, Patricia, Canadian University Music Review


William Ashbrook and Harold Powers. Puccini's 'Turandot' : The End of the Great Tradition. Princeton Studies in Opera. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991. x, 193 pp. ISBN 0-691-09137-4 (cloth), 0-691-02712-9 (paper).

For more than a decade scholars, students, and connoisseurs of opera have been able to consult two series of books on opera: the Opera Guides in association with the English National Opera and Royal Opera (Calder Publishers) and the Cambridge Opera Handbooks (Cambridge University Press). To date, both series have focused on the major works in the repertoire, devoting an entire volume to one opera, with discographies and bibliographies for further study. Here the similarities end. The English National Opera Guides are written with the intention of enlightening the general opera-going public, giving them aseries of introductory essays which focus on a specific opera in its historical context, the libretto as literature, and the important aspects of the musical style. The second half of the book contains the libretto in its original language accompanied by an English translation. The Cambridge Opera Handbooks differ not so much in the types of issues addressed as in the manner of discussion- These volumes are definitely written for the musically literate since they contain more musical analysis and thoroughly examine some pertinent issues of the particular opera. According to the "General Preface," each handbook has three main areas: history, analysis, and the influence of critical writing on the appreciation of structural elements. The historical discussions focus on the genesis of the libretto and the music and give a performance history. The detailed musical analysis considers musical and dramatic effects within the context of the overall structure.

Princeton Studies in Opera is a new series on opera scholarship, introduced in 1991 by Princeton University Press. Puccini's 'Turandot' is the first book in the series, followed by Unsung Voices: Opera and Musical Narrative in the Nineteenth Century ( 1991) by Carolyn Abbate. From these first two publications it appears that this series is proceeding in a different direction from previous ones, appealing directly to opera scholars who are well acquainted with the repertoire. Ashbrook and Powers have placed the opera Turandot within the tradition of nineteenth-century Italian melodramma and the works of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi. The authors conclude their Introduction with the book's raison d'être:

Our concern is not with Turandot as one among a number of socio-historical reflections of a phase or an aspect of Western culture, but simply as a work worthy of consideration in its own terms, as the last Monument in the last Golden Century of one of the world's Great Traditions of musical theater (p. 11).

Perhaps it is not just a coincidence that Turandot has a complete volume devoted to it. The previous literature on this opera is for the most part superficial - anecdotal with lengthy plot synopses and subjective and descriptive musical analysis.1 I believe that Turandot warrants serious study since this opera presents so many interesting issues in terms of harmonic and tonal language and colour, to say nothing about the fact that Puccini had completed only sketches for the final scenes of the last act before he died.2 Perhaps the greatest enigma of this opera is not the three riddles posed by the Princess Turandot to the unknown Prince Calàf, but the question of what Puccini would eventually have composed as its ending. Ashbrook and Powers' book, Puccini's 'Turandot' considers these matters in a more thorough and substantial manner than previous writers have done.

To facilitate the subsequent discussions of Turandot, the first chapter is devoted to explaining how the authors have subdivided the work into a number opera via major musico-dramatic sections (using upper-case letters) with further division into individual "movements," such as arias and choruses (using Arabic numerals).

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