Reviewing the recent production of Madama Butterfly in Adelaide, I dwelt on Giacomo Puccini’s ceaseless search for new subjects between operas and how he considered everything from a Zola novel to the historical Marie Antoinette before settling on the story of Cio-Cio San.
The path to Turandot, his final, unfinished opera, was similarly curious. Puccini, the world’s most famous composer, turned sixty in December 1918. One month later he was in Rome for the first Italian performances of his Trittico. Then he began searching for a new libretto. Giovacchino Forzano, librettist of Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi (both 1918), proposed an opera on the character Christopher Sly from The Taming of the Shrew – another great insomniac, like Calaf, his ultimate replacement (‘Nessun dorma’):
Am I a lord, and have I such a lady?
Or do I dream? Or have I dreamed till now?
I do not sleep: I see, I hear, I speak,
I smell sweet savors and I feel soft things.
(Christopher Sly, from the Induction)
Forzano went on to write the play, but Puccini never wrote the opera. That task fell to Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, whose opera Sly would première at La Scala at 1927. Instead, Puccini enlisted Giuseppe Adami – librettist of La rondine (1917) and Il tabarro (1918) – to collaborate with Renato Simoni on a new project. They flirted with the idea of an opera called Fanny, adapted from Dickens’s Oliver Twist (Fanny being based on Nancy), before turning to Count Carlo Gozzi’s play Turandot (1762), which Puccini had seen in Berlin, a German adaptation produced by Max Reinhardt. Gozzi described his play as a fiaba Chinese tragicomica in cinque atti (tragicomic Chinese fairy story in five acts). Puccini considered it ‘the most normal and most human of all Gozzi’s plays’. In the nineteenth century, there were seven operas about Gozzi’s famously icy heroine; Busoni wrote his own Turandot seven years before the Puccini.