Was Empress Cixi the Inspiration for Puccini’s Turandot?

By Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Turandot, the Chinese Princess-Goddess featured in Puccini’s much-loved, Forbidden City located opera, remains one of operas great characters. Indeed, the opera itself boasts operas most instantly recognizable tune in “Nessum Dorma”. Yet as a character, Turandot displays traits not unlike the real life Empress Cixi. Did Puccini take inspiration from the infamous Imperial dowager?

Puccini wrote Turandot in the early 1920s, set to a libretto in Italian by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni. Although Puccini’s first interest in the subject was based on his reading of Friedrich Schiller’s adaptation of the play, his work is most nearly based on the earlier text Turandot by Carlo Gozzi. So it is to Gozzi’s work we must turn to as the play on which the opera is based. Here, however, we find that the play is based upon an account written in 1762 after a story from the Persian collection “The Book of One Thousand and One Days.” As Cixi was born in 1835, the play cannot have been based on her, and instead seems to follow an ancient Central Asian princess. This is underlined in the opera by Turandot’s erstwhile lover being named Timur, a name derived from “Tamerlane” the legendary Central Asian warrior who restored the Empire of Genghis Khan in the Middle Ages. Additional references in the opera refer to the “Tartars” who conquered China – another matching reference that points to Turandot being a Central Asian, and not Chinese legend.

Accordingly, we return to Schiller’s version. Schiller, a contemporary and collaborator with Goethe, wrote his version of Gozzi’s play, in German, in 1801. However, closer examination reveals this to have been a translation, and not a new work. Indeed, much of Schillers output was historical narrative, although he retains his reputation today as an original Poet of some note. Yet if Schiller wasn’t responsible for reworking Gozzi’s original play, then who was responsible for taking the script out of Central Asia and placing it firmly in China?

Interestingly, Puccini was unable to complete the opera, dying in 1924, some two years prior to the staging of the opera which eventually premiered at La Scala in 1926. To uncover who removed the setting to the Forbidden City, we need to look at the authors of the Libretto itself – Adami and Simoni. Giuseppe Adami was a professional librettist (ie: he wrote the lyrics) and was a close collaborator with Puccini. Working with several composers, he was also a noted music critic of the day, yet research reveals little about any possible Chinese cultural influences; in fact quite the opposite – he was a expert of Venetian lyricism.

Rinato Simoni, the co-librettist, with Adami on Turandot, however was a different type of man. Although himself a noted lyricist, Simoni’s background was in journalism; he worked for many years at several magazines and newspapers, albeit mainly as a music critic for them. Nonetheless, working within a busy news environment would have exposed him to the very latest items concerning international incidents and intrigue, and the newspaper archives would have presented a rich source of material upon which to research the background into Chinese Imperial life, long a source of fascination to the West.

Another man comes into the picture however. With Puccini dying before Turandot was completed, the composer Franco Alfano was given the task of putting together the sketches than Puccini had left behind and of reworking them into a usable piece of work. It took Alfano 18 months to complete this task, and still today it remains a source of some musical debate as to which parts of Turandot were written by Puccini and which by Alfano. Indeed, the controversy was to remain with Alfano for the rest of his days, and almost certainly interfered with his own reputation as a fine composer in his own right. He also supported Mussolini, a wartime error that has kept own modern standing as an Italian of note suppressed way into modern times. Turandot, along with his political leanings, ensured Alfano’s name has remained in the dark corners of operatic composition. Yet of all the contributors to Puccini’s opera, he was by far the most travelled, even composing an opera “La leggenda di Sakùntala” based on a Sanskrit play by the Indian poet Kalidasa.

Certainly, Turandot’s score contains Chinese musical motifs, with highly recognizable, Chinese themes being played on percussion. With Alfano having used similar techniques to provide musical exoticism in his Sanskrit opera, it is not beyond fantasy that he would have used the same trick to provide Chinese motifs into Turandot’s score. Perhaps with the journalistic background of Simoni, and a desire to plug into an audience desperate for any cultural event depicting the exoticism of the Orient, both men contrived to place Turandot in the Forbidden City, a rather grander and more topical setting than the steppes of Central Asia in the middle ages.

Once relocated to the Forbidden City, Turandot as a character begins to align with that of the Empress Cixi. As Cixi grew older, she became more infatuated with her power and any attempts to usurp it. One royal courtesan who displeased her was wrapped in a carpet and dumped in a well in the Forbidden City (one can see the well still today). Other atrocities took place, as she frittered away the last of the Imperial finances on follies. When China needed warships to counter the foreign powers massing off the North-East Chinese coast demanding concessions, she arrogantly diverted the requisite funds into a marble ship constructed (and again still standing) in the Summer Palace Grounds. Anyone who opposed her usually ended up dead. As did suitors of Turandot, of whom she routinely asked three questions, and whom were beheaded after failing to answer her riddles. Like Turandot, she believed herself Goddess and untouchable.

Ultimately, the Chinese reaction to the opera however was somewhat predictable. After becoming a smash hit in Europe, it was promptly banned from performance in China on the grounds that it depicted China in a poor light. As it did – the famous Aria “Nessum Dorma” is in fact a dire warning. Far from being a romantic aria as is widely assumed, it translates as “None Shall Sleep.” Turandot has commanded every resident of Beijing be put to death until the name of her suitor is revealed to her.  And sleep would not visit you, dear reader either, knowing that Chinese soldiers are killing men, women and children in their beds until the Empress gets what she wants.

Quite who placed Turandot, that most unlikely named Chinese Princess, in the Forbidden City, remains a mystery. But despite the opera being credited to him, it seems Puccini’s original intentions as concerns the story may well have been additionally influenced by his collaborators, and the suspects look increasingly as being Alfano and Simoni. Turandot, as the very name indicates, was not historically Chinese, and was in all likelihood Central Asian in origin and from an even more blood-soaked era of history than the formidable, real life Cixi was able to conjure.

Chris’ review of the new La Scala production of Turandot, which premiered last Sunday, can be viewed here.

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3 Responses to Was Empress Cixi the Inspiration for Puccini’s Turandot?

  1. F.Wong says:

    A most entertaining and interesting read, thankyou.

  2. Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    You’re welcome. Far too few people actually know that “Nessum Dorma” (“None Shall Sleep”) is a song about fleeing the mighty wrath of the Empress of China.

  3. Bronwyn says:

    Well, it’s both a love song–of a sort–and fleeing the Empress’ wrath, because Calaf is, essentially, a sick bastard. Or driven mad with desire, or in the grip of an iron destiny, if you want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

    He’s *glad* no one shall sleep b/c of the Empress’ horrible edict, because he’s certain that he will win the contest and get to sleep with her. And that’s all that matters

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