Among the many absurdist opera stories in existence, nothing is more preposterous than the happy ending generally used for Giacomo Puccini’s final opera “Turandot,” in which Princess Turandot suddenly accepts Prince Calaf’s wooing right after the suicide of Liu, a slave, as if her death was nothing.

It was a wonder for me why this opera, in which a cruel princess puts her suitors to death if they fail to answer three riddles, was chosen to be staged at the Summer Festival Opera 2019-20 Japan-Tokyo-World event, ahead of next year’s Olympics.

It is often said that Puccini was not able to find a satisfactory ending for his unfinished masterpiece, “Turandot,” which features cacophonous sound, exotic Chinese elements and sonorous chanting.

After his death in 1924, Puccini’s swan song was completed by his pupil Franco Alfano, based on his master’s rough idea.

“No one knows whether Puccini really wanted to make a ‘happy ending’ in D-major,” says conductor Kazushi Ono, the general producer of the project.

As a member of the Tokyo Arts and Culture Committee, Ono advocated for the “production of opera originated in Tokyo, with the participation of people from around the world,” as a cultural program for the sidelines of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.

Under Ono, who also serves as the artistic director of opera at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, the opera project has developed into the first collaboration between NNTT and the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, inviting an orchestra and specialists from Barcelona, as well as leading singers from around the world.

Dramatic ending: Giacomo Puccini was never able to finish 'Turandot,' leaving his student to concoct its surprising finale. | © RIKIMARU HOTTA
Dramatic ending: Giacomo Puccini was never able to finish ‘Turandot,’ leaving his student to concoct its surprising finale. | © RIKIMARU HOTTA

“Turandot” premiered at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan Main Hall on July 12, and moved on to NNTT ahead of touring to Biwako Hall in Shiga Prefecture and Sapporo Cultural Arts Theater in Hokkaido.

When the curtain went up, I was amazed by the huge walls in a reverse pyramid on the stage. The oppressed people, played by 90 choir members, moved around the 10-meter high wall, while Turandot and her father, the emperor, stayed in a spaceship-like chamber hung from the ceiling moving up and down, eloquently demonstrating the social structure.

This production, by director Alex Olle, avoids the “happy wedding” at the last moment, which was shocking, yet convincing to me. On reflection, the drama is about men’s desire for power — embodied in Turandot — and women coming to terms with sexual trauma.

In this version, the suicide of the angelic Liu shakes not only the audience, but also the cruel Turandot, who drastically liberates herself from her trauma. Calaf is left alone, ironically surrounded by the glorious choir.

In this world, things are not easily solved. Nevertheless, flesh-and-blood individuals face up to difficulties, surrounded by the ever-changing stormy choir voices. Aren’t such spectacles similar to what we expect from the Olympics and Paralympics? In that sense, it may be a suitable way to celebrate Tokyo 2020.

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